SEATTLE — Marksmen and trappers returned to the woods of northeast Washington this week, hoping to kill more of the gray wolves that have been taking down a ranch’s cows.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sharpshooters are armed with orders to take out up to four of the protected predators in the so-called Wedge Pack, which straddles the Canadian border in Stevens County.
But after a grueling summer of losses for a pair of cattlemen already hostile to Canis lupus — and a maddening month for wildlife advocates suspicious that ranchers also want to stoke anti-wolf fever — few think that will resolve this festering standoff.
Five years after wild wolves began returning to Washington, a long-simmering conflict between wolves and livestock has exploded with a vengeance. And by most accounts it couldn’t have happened in a worse place.
“I don’t know that I’d call this the perfect storm, but we have a substantial problem,” said Phil Anderson, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Since midsummer, at least 12 cows or calves belonging to Diamond M Ranch owners Len McIrvin and his son, Bill McIrvin, have been killed or injured — two of them just this week. While outside experts aren’t convinced all were attacked by wolves, some clearly were.
But the nearby terrain is so vast, steep, and thick with trees and underbrush that easy solutions aren’t obvious.
The senior McIrvin, whose family has grazed cattle on public and private land in northeast Washington for more than a century, has long expressed disdain for wolves.
He has been unwilling to accept compensation for his dead animals, fearing that would legitimize the predator’s protection. At times he has urged state and local politicians to do what they can to make sure the entire pack is wiped out.
“Wolves have never been compatible with raising livestock,” McIrvin said in an interview. “They have no enemy other than man, disease and hunger, and we’ve taken man out of the equation.”
His son, Bill McIrvin, on the other hand, has shown more willingness to find a way to coexist with wolves, but with each passing week his pessimism mounts.
“I’d like to find common ground, but at this point it doesn’t look good,” the younger McIrvin said. “We just can’t operate with the kind of losses we’re seeing.”
Meanwhile, some wildlife organizations, fueled by the elder McIrvin’s intransigence, and concerns that the state is responding to political pressure he has whipped up, are pressuring the state to avoid killing wolves.
The ideological gulf frustrates Mitch Friedman, of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, who concedes there will be times when the state must kill wolves to protect Washington’s livestock industry.
But he thinks there could be a less divisive long-term solution if emotions and politics were put aside by both sides.
“I’d love for wolves not to be a pawn in a culture war,” Friedman said. “Periodically, we’re going to need to remove wolves. They’re fecund — there’s going to be a lot of them. At some point there should probably be a hunting season of some sort. On the other hand, I know ranchers who say, ‘They’re not going to go away, so we have to figure out how to live with them.’ I would love to see more of that attitude from this particular rancher.”
Wolves began recolonizing Washington in the mid-2000s, with the first confirmed pack showing up in 2008. There are eight known wolf packs around the state and another four are suspected, but not confirmed.
The bulk of those are in the state’s northeast corner, where the predators are no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act and are instead managed by the state.
Wolf-cow conflicts there grew serious in July, when several cows and calves appeared to have been attacked. State investigators examined the carcasses and determined in some cases that it was “reasonable” to presume a wolf was responsible.
In early August the state killed a wolf, but over the next several weeks more cattle were attacked. Late in the month, the state announced plans to kill up to four more, but agreed to keep the breeding pair alive, hoping instead to simply scatter the animals and reduce the pack’s size.
It wasn’t an easy task.
“The wolves have become very trap-wise,” Anderson, at Fish and Wildlife, said. “We’ve seen them paw and dig up traps without stepping in them ... these guys never cease to amaze me.”
Several environmental groups complained, arguing that state law makes clear that before a wolf is trapped or shot there must be clear, solid evidence that the animals have actually killed — not just attacked — livestock. With the Labor Day holiday approaching, the state pulled the trappers and hunters out to regroup and consider their options, but then two more calves were killed.
This time experts agreed: The puncture wounds on each calf’s hamstring clearly showed wolves were responsible. So the sharpshooters were sent back out Wednesday to resume their hunt. And then two more cows were found attacked on the McIrvins’ private land.
While the conflict is the worst the Northwest has seen since wolves began returning, it’s not unfamiliar territory. It’s where many in the Rockies were with carnivores 15 years ago.
“My first thought is: This is complicated. It’s a tough one,” said Seth Wilson, a conservation biologist who works with the Blackfoot Challenge, a landowner-driven watershed group that tries to help resolve predator-livestock conflicts in Montana. “My other reaction: We’ve gone through this same situation, where you have livestock dispersed over a large area, with rugged terrain and limited means to monitor them, even with radio telemetry.”
Wildlife groups in Montana and elsewhere have gotten creative. They’ve set up miles and miles of electric fencing, paid for range riders to patrol grazing lands and scare wolves away, have worked to keep cows and calves paired together and have gone in quickly to remove carcasses so they don’t attract more predators. Mostly, though, they’ve communicated with ranchers enough to make clear that, with some hiccups, wolves and livestock are both here to stay and can actually coexist.
Wolves still sometimes kill cows, he said, but the frequency has dropped dramatically.
For the moment, the senior McIrvin isn’t interested. “If you put electric wire up today, the deer and elk would have it torn down tomorrow anyway,” he said. “It’s not impractical. It’s impossible.”
He said he has made concessions — putting his cows out a little later in the year so they are bigger and less vulnerable to wolves. But unlike some other ranchers, he has been unwilling to sign an agreement with the state to work together to find a solution that doesn’t involve just killing wolves.
That position, said Carter Niemeyer, one of the country’s leading wolf experts and an ex-trapper who is well-regarded by wolf advocates and ranchers alike, could backfire.
“Certainly there’s justification to remove problem predators. Absolutely,” Niemeyer said. But “it’s a big gamble on a livestock producer’s part to just say, ‘Leave us alone.’ It creates a perception that they are bullies and makes more people angry over public-land grazing.”
For his part, Friedman’s organization now accepts that the recent kills “trigger management responses, including lethal removal.” But killing four wolves right away appears “excessive” and Conservation Northwest hopes the state moves incrementally.
“I wish I knew what that best option was,” Friedman said. “But we’ve talked to experts who have found options in comparable terrain elsewhere. Folks need to find a way to make this work.”