Elk NetworkWashington Looks for Better Ways to Live with Wolves

Conservation | January 1, 2016

Washington Looks for Better Ways to Live with Wolves

Washington got a crash course in managing wolf depredations on livestock this past fall, and state wildlife managers are working hard to refine how they deal with future conflicts. 

Last summer the eight-wolf Wedge Pack living near the Canadian border in northeast Washington’s Stevens County injured or killed 16 calves belonging to the Diamond M Ranch. After attempts at non-lethal deterrents, the state decided to remove the pack. Under heavy public scrutiny, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spent 39 days trying to take out the pack from the ground, but succeeded in killing only a single wolf. They then took to the air, and with the use of a helicopter were able to kill six wolves in four days, effectively putting an end to the Wedge Pack.

As of October 2012, Washington was home to eight confirmed wolf packs, according to the WDFW. Most reside in the state’s rural northeast corner, where traditional cattle ranching remains a mainstay of the economy.

WDFW was unable to use the federal Wildlife Services agency to cull its wolves because Wildlife Services had not completed the NEPA process for wolves in Washington and so lacked authorization. Efforts to remove the Wedge Pack cost the state close to $77,000. Media from Seattle and around the state followed it every step of the way. Wolf advocacy groups are pushing for a hands-off approach moving forward. The state, though, hopes to take cues from how ranchers and wildlife managers in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley have worked together to help prevent or quickly resolve conflicts. 

A delegation from WDFW including Phil Anderson, director, and Dave Ware, game division manager, spent two days in November touring the Blackfoot with staff from the Blackfoot Challenge and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The Blackfoot Challenge is a nonprofit cooperative centered in the Blackfoot Valley that helps forge partnerships in an effort to “conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life throughout the watershed.” 

“The Blackfoot Valley seemed well-suited for us,” Ware says. “We wanted to see what they were going through, and see if we can mimic their successes in Washington.”

Like eastern Washington, the Blackfoot is a highly productive ranching area. This single valley is also home to at least 11 confirmed wolf packs, as well as numerous grizzlies, black bears and mountain lions. While livestock injuries and deaths certainly happen here, the Blackfoot Challenge and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have been working hard to minimize depredations through a variety of means. Their efforts have helped reduce conflicts with grizzly bears by 93 percent. Despite the presence of more wolves in the Blackfoot than there are in the entire state of Washington, wolves made four confirmed livestock kills in 2010, three in 2011 and five in 2012.

When a livestock depredation is reported in the Blackfoot, Wildlife Services agents inspect the carcass as quickly as possible. If they determine that wolves were responsible, they attempt to either kill the responsible wolves when they return to feed on it or, if there are radio-collared wolves in the responsible pack, quickly locate the pack and shoot from the air the number of wolves involved in the depredation. The hope is that any surviving wolves will immediately learn that eating livestock is a lethal lifestyle. 

Madonna Luers, a Washington Fish and Wildlife department spokeswoman, told The Spokesman-Review that the Blackfoot model will be incorporated in Washington moving forward. 

 “You hit hard and early,” Luers says. “They’re smart, pack animals that adapt to what’s happening in their environment.”

Along with swift response to any depredations, the key to sustaining successful relations between humans and predators in the Blackfoot Valley is the host of preventative measures employed jointly by landowners, public land management agencies and nonprofits. These methods include high-voltage electric fencing around livestock calving areas, fladry (a visual type of fencing where colored flags are hung from wire), prompt removal of livestock carcasses, guard dogs and a range rider program.

“All these things help minimize conflicts with large predators, not just wolves,” says Seth Wilson, coordinator of the Blackfoot Challenge’s Wildlife Committee. “By removing the carcasses of livestock that die of natural causes such as disease, old age or calving, we’re removing the welcome mat for large predators in the area.”

The range riders have proven beneficial in the Blackfoot. Not only can their presence help deter predators, range riders are able to monitor herd health and alert ranchers to any sick or weakened animals that could also attract predators. The rider stays in close communication with ranchers about predator activity near their livestock and writes up a wolf activity report that is distributed to the community every two weeks. 

“Being long-distance travelers, wolves can be very difficult to find and keep track of,” says Liz Bradley, regional wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. ”Gathering wolf sighting reports from the public has been invaluable in gaining a better understanding of wolf distribution in the area.”

For the past five winters, FWP and the Blackfoot Challenge have organized an intensive, two-day community-wide wolf survey in the watershed. More than a hundred people from ranchers to hunters to students turn out to cover different parts of the valley looking for wolf sign in the snow. 

“This effort has been particularly helpful in documenting new packs and getting better estimates of the number of wolves in existing packs,” Bradley says. “One of the main goals of range riders and all our other outreach efforts is to create a feedback loop where the public shares information with us and we give information back to the public. That way, we’re all better informed and, ideally, learning together.”  

In Washington, though, a state heavily influenced by the public sentiment in its metropolitan areas, the situation is bound to stay complicated. 

“We’re really trying to gather trust,” says WDFW’s Dave Ware. “Washington is a very urbanized state, and the opinions and the views of the urban community are very different from the rural.” 

RMEF’S take: 
Washington’s common-sense move to learn from its neighbors and borrow the best ideas of what tactics and techniques are working well in a similar landscape is yet another good example of why state-based wildlife management is essential. If local communities can’t take part in management decisions, they won’t take ownership, either. The innovative spirit of the Blackfoot Valley is but one example of the kinds of powerful local partnerships that can develop.