Washington wipes out a wolf pack

  • Paul Lindholdt


A wildlife tragedy began in Washington state on Aug. 7, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that a wolf in the Wedge Pack had killed a calf on a ranch close to Canada. Afterward, the rancher said that wolves were continuing to kill or maim his cattle. Wildlife staffers examined his claim and acknowledged that 16 animals had been killed or injured.

But this is the real tragedy: By Sept. 27, the entire Wedge Pack of eight wolves had been killed. The collared alpha male, shot from a helicopter, was the last to go. The pack was wiped out because the rancher dug in his heels. He refused to accept any reparation for his losses, insisting instead that the state’s management plan for wolves needed to be rescinded.

Under that plan, ratified in 2011 after nine elaborate public hearings across the state, ranchers may receive payment for two grown beef cattle, in the case of a confirmed wolf kill, or one calf in the case of a probable kill.

The plan also requires ranchers and the agency to attempt all possible non-lethal alternatives before they resort to killing wolves. State wildlife officials urge “livestock operators to enter into cooperative, cost-sharing agreements with the department that specify non-lethal measures.” State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D, says it’s “inexcusable” that the state didn't “exhaust” non-lethal methods first.

Before wolves can be taken off the endangered species list, the plan says, there must be 15 breeding pairs in existence statewide for three years. If the state hopes to reach this goal, it will certainly need to discontinue management by rifle barrel.

State agents now say they are ready to try something called Chemical Bio-scent (a smelly repellent) as a non-lethal measure.  We urge them also to try a tool called Conditioned Taste Aversion, developed by biologist Lowell Nicolaus, which applies worming medicine to cow carcasses to sicken feeding wolves. In classic Pavlovian conditioning, wolves soon learn that eating beef turns their stomachs. Nicolaus has adapted this technique successfully to change the behavior of wild crows and raccoons, and also used it on captive wolves.

Yet the problem with the Wedge Pack is not so much wolves preying on cattle as it is the continued grazing of livestock on our federal estate. Especially during the summer, when the predation is highest, the rancher’s cows graze on public lands. That means American taxpayers pick up some of the tab for his herd. The rancher built his ranch, yes, but not without government help.

Taxpayers subsidize tens of thousands of U.S. cattle each year, and these cattle degrade the same habitats that are required by wolves’ native prey. Science shows that cattle –– an exotic species in the West –– displace deer, elk, moose and other prey species. Grazing also undercuts sound wolf management efforts.

We believe that money to subsidize cattle grazing would be better spent on wolf recovery –– restoring the range to the way it was before public-lands ranching became an institution. Ask most fans of outdoor recreation if they would rather watch wild species than cattle in wild areas, and you know what they will say.

Wolves and other large carnivores are keystone species in functioning ecosystems. A study conducted in 2012 by Oregon State University researchers concluded that the absence of carnivores -- wolves especially -- harms the land. Elk herds in Yellowstone, for instance, pruned willows and shrubs far back until gray wolves were reintroduced. An unnatural dearth of large carnivores allows herbivores to disrupt natural checks and balances.

Another scientific line would be to design an interstate, even international, conservation and management plan. Such a plan would consider wolf populations all over the West.

There is a lot at stake for taxpayers. The state’s wildlife agency had to pay employees several weeks of overtime to chase down the Wedge Pack. A helicopter was in the air for four days. Sen. Ranker has asked the department for the final cost, as well as for a study of the comparative costs of lethal and non-lethal methods.

We can hardly wait to see that cost-benefit analysis. Whatever the price in blood, money and mismanaged compassion, this was the result: An entire wolf pack was killed for the sake of one ranch and its rancher.

Wolves in the West are here to stay. They don’t comprehend state and national boundaries, but they understand their role in ecosystems. The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, the law of the land in Washington for now, is all the wolves have to protect them.

Let’s give the “conservation” part of the plan a fighting chance.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). Laura Ackerman is a Spokane farmer and environmental activist; Paul Lindholdt is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University in Spokane.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Douglas K Halford
Douglas K Halford Subscriber
Nov 27, 2012 01:59 PM
I believe the policy for ranchers using public lands is that any loss is the risk of taking welfare for grazing. APHIS (another welfare benefit to ranchers) should not be permitted to remove predators that kill livestock on public lands. It is interesting that the vast majority of ranchers are right wing conservatives railing against the government yet they feel entitled to the use of public land to make a profit and expect the government to protect their profit from mother nature. They are nothing but two-faced whiners.
Walt Foutz
Walt Foutz
Dec 27, 2012 11:48 AM
I am in perfect agreement with DKH's comments about the Federal entitlement program for ranchers that allows them to overgraze and grossly degrade National Forest and BLM land at taxpayers' expense. While these conservative ranchers whine about government intervention, they expect government bailouts in the form of wolf intervention or extermination, nearly free use of public land, subsidized crop insurance, ad nauseum. To frequently bite the hand that feeds them is the height of hypocrisy.