Washington cattlemen share wolf experiences

Feb 15, 2013

As the gray wolf expands its territory in the northwest, controversies over the species between ranchers, wildlife agencies, and proponents of the species are also spreading to previously unaffected areas. Over the last two years, ranchers in Washington’s northeast corner have found themselves at the center of the most recent struggle to maintain their livelihoods in the face of new predators. At a recent Ag Expo held in Spokane, WA, ranchers and politicians from Stevens County presented a seminar, sharing their experiences managing alongside wolves with ranchers from neighboring areas.

While at least nine wolf packs are known to exist in Washington, nearly all of them reside in the state’s northeast corner. This disproportion, say area ranchers, leaves them with an unfair disadvantage under Washington’s wolf management plan.

As in Oregon, wolves in the eastern third of Washington are no longer listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), but remain protected under the state’s own ESA, which puts their management in the hands of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in those regions. Also like Oregon, Washington’s potential delisting of wolves is based upon the meeting of population criteria. Unlike Oregon, however, Washington’s wolf regulations also include distribution as a factor for delisting. Under the Washington plan, wolves cannot be delisted anywhere in the state until specific population goals are met in three zones statewide. For ranchers already facing problems in the northeast, this means that delisting cannot occur until four breeding pairs are found west of the Cascade Mountains. Faced with this dilemma, ranchers and county officials indicated that they have had to work closely with WDFW to combat the growing wolf population within the confines of the law.

WDFW retains the ability to manage problem wolves, and has shown a willingness to do so, most notably with its removal of a pack of wolves from a region of northern Stevens County known as the ‘Wedge’ following 16 confirmed attacks by the pack on livestock belonging to the Diamond M ranch.

In all, six wolves were killed by agency personnel in September of last year. While WDFW, the ranchers, and even some conservation groups agreed that the pack had to go, the move still drew criticism from wolf advocates, who accused Diamond M’s Bill McIrvin of failing to cooperate with WDFW in attempts at nonlethal control prior to the pack’s removal, thus forcing its removal by WDFW. Advocates also criticized Mc- Irvin for refusing financial compensation for his losses offered by WDFW, a decision explained by McIrvin in an October press release. “We tried everything that (WD- FW) thought would be effective,” said McIrvin. “If we accepted compensation, it would be like saying that the pack eating our cattle is all right. It is not all right.”

At the Feb. 6 seminar, Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell indicated that the county has also taken an active role in helping WDFW manage wolf predation, developing a program for dispatching WDFW agents through the existing 911 system in an attempt to speed response times to wolf kill sites. As in other regions, the county sheriff’s office is also called to these sites to assist with the investigations.

From the other end of Stevens County, rancher Jeff Dawson related a more successful experience working with WDFW on non-lethal methods. Addressing the group, Dawson began by pointing out the added labor and stress inherent in dealing with wolves on a day-today basis. “My cell phone sets the tone for my day,” he said. “I can plan all I want, but at 6:00 a.m., this phone goes off with a text message telling me where that pack of wolves is. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a bunch of cattle, or on an elk or moose kill, somebody has got to go check that out.”

According to Dawson, his family began experiencing problems with a group of wolves known as the Smackout pack in 2008. Initial problems included changes in cattle behavior that prevented the use of herding dogs, as well as changes in grazing patterns that left timbered portions of his range unused, while open areas were overgrazed by cattle unwilling to venture into lower visibility areas. By 2011, death loss on the ranch had nearly doubled over previous years, though nothing could be directly attributed to wolf kills, and the Dawson’s had had enough. “In 2012, we sat down to decide what we were going to do,” says Dawson. At that point, they were approached by WDFW with an offer to participate in a state-funded ‘range rider’ program to hire a rider to monitor cattle and haze away wolves. “We put some thought into whether we would accept that or not,” he said. “We knew it had been tried in other places, with mixed results.” Ultimately, despite some reservations, they agreed to participate in the program, which provided $22,000 to pay someone to ride their range and monitor for wolves.

According to Jeff, the Dawson’s felt strongly that the key to success in the program lay in hiring the right person. “If you’re going to hire somebody to do this,” he said, “we figured it had to be somebody who knew something about livestock, who knew about wolves, and, most importantly, knew our operation, how our ranch is run, and what we expect at the end of the year.” With the hiring of that person, says Dawson, the program was successful for them. All but one cow was recovered or accounted for at the close of the 2012 grazing season, a loss that Dawson indicated was as likely to be the result of sickness as it was wolves. Additionally, he said, weaning weights had also improved, returning to their pre-2008 levels. “It brought us back to where we were,” he explained. “We didn’t get above that, but at least we weren’t in the negative column anymore. It was all related to how we were able to utilize that forage while we were out there. Before, those cattle would bunch up in meadows, afraid to go into the trees. We were able to alleviate that.”

While Dawson points out that he doesn’t know if the range rider program will work for every operation, WDFW has indicated that they are interested in implementing the program on a larger scale. Critics of the program have questioned the use of tax dollars for the program. Dawson, however, points out that his operation paid an additional $6,000 on top of the funding provided by WDFW, and that paying the entire salary out of pocket would not have been possible. “I can’t afford to pay that, and I don’t feel that the burden should fall on the livestock producer to cover all of it,” he said.

In the politically-charged atmosphere created by the wolf controversy, Dawson stressed that documentation is key to protecting a livestock operation’s interests. Nor, he says, should that documentation stop with only wolf-related aspects of the operation. “As we sit here today,” he said, “(wolf advocates) have hired range specialists to go onto the allotments where the Wedge wolves were removed and do an assessment of those allotments.”

Not an assessment of wolves, stressed Dawson, but an assessment of water quality, forage, and other measurements in an attempt to remove livestock from those ranges, via litigation. “You have to have everything you can think of documented, because there is going to come a time when you will have to defend all of it,” he says. “In the end, it’s not about the wolf.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent