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Expanding wolf packs creep onto cattle grazing territory

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By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald

"If the wolves start testing the cattle and the calves run, they’ll hit them. After a while they get a taste for beef. They’re habituated," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, who said he "regrettably" — and at the risk of antagonizing others championing wolves’ re-population of Washington — supported lethal removal of the Wedge Pack.

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Over the two decades Ellensburg cattle rancher Sam Kayser has been running cows and calves in the rolling hills of the Teanaway, the animals’ grazing patterns have become so predictable his range riders know where to find the cattle at any given time.

That’s no longer the case, now that wolves are hunting prey within those same forested ridges and draws.

In June, a bunch of Kayser’s cattle did something they hadn’t done in those 20 years: They stampeded through a holding pen in a 100-acre meadow and scattered, some of them finally being rounded up five miles away. A month later, Kayser got a call that some of his cattle were at the crest of Blewett Pass, more than 10 miles from where they should have been.

The reason behind the cattle’s newly erratic behavior is no mystery.

On Wednesday, Kayser’s son, Kass, was riding an area near the North Fork of the Teanaway, where he should have found a lot of Kayser cattle. There were none. What the younger Kayser found instead was a lot of wolf tracks — some of the prints as large as horses’ hooves.

Sam Kayser doesn’t know yet if he’s lost any cattle to the newest predator in Washington’s food chain.

"We’re starting to bring them in now. We’ll be able to tell if we lost any," Kayser said on Thursday. "We took all cows with calves up there, and we’ll have a calf or two a year that get sick and don’t come back.

"But we’re only a fifth of the way through gathering, so I don’t know if there’s going to be eight cows this year that don’t have calves or just the steady one or two."

Ranchers in the northeast corner of the state haven’t been as fortunate as Kayser hopes to be. One cattle operation in Stevens County, Diamond M Ranch, reports at least 17 calves and cows killed or injured by wolves in the Wedge Pack, one of the state’s eight confirmed wolf packs.

Months of using non-lethal and lethal means to change the wolves’ behavior — including the state-ordered shooting of a non-breeding Wedge Pack member in early August — didn’t work. Livestock producers clamored for the wolves’ removal, and even some of those on the other side of the issue knew something had to be done.

"If the wolves start testing the cattle and the calves run, they’ll hit them. After a while they get a taste for beef. They’re habituated," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, who said he "regrettably" — and at the risk of antagonizing others championing wolves’ repopulation of Washington — supported lethal removal of the Wedge Pack.

Last week, marksmen hired by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife killed six Wedge wolves, including the pack’s alpha male and alpha female.

Interestingly, the state’s seven other confirmed packs (and another four suspected packs) — even those in close proximity to grazers — have apparently not yet developed the Wedge’s appetite for livestock.

"Diamond is near livestock, the Smackout Pack is right on top of livestock and Salmo is near livestock, and nothing," said Wildlife Department spokeswoman Madonna Luers, referring to three northeast Washington packs.

"People jump to the conclusion that all this activity with the Wedge, ‘Oh my God, that’s what all wolves do.’ No, that’s what these wolves do."

Steve Pozzanghera, the department’s wolf policy lead, says wolf research in other states indicates a sort of all-or-nothing pack-wide behavior when it comes to viewing livestock as a prey base.

Wyoming has 21 confirmed packs with an active breeding pair, Pozzanghera said, and only three have taken to targeting livestock.

"Eighteen of those 21 packs," he said, "have not had livestock predation patterns."

Last spring, state wildlife officials and Conservation Northwest planned a joint workshop — bringing in experts from states further along in the Northern Rockies wolf recovery process — to teach livestock producers ways they might best adapt their management practices to deal with the influx of wolves.

Cattlemen in the northeast corner of the state, though, chaffed so loudly and angrily at the idea of being trained by outsiders — particularly wolf-loving environmentalists — that the wildlife department pulled out of the workshop.

Livestock producers "share a different perspective on wolf management than Conservation Northwest," said Jack Field of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. "In my opinion, the department needed to do that (training workshop) separate, without any NGO" (non-governmental organization).

An uneasy truce seems to be slowly emerging, though, between state wildlife officials and livestock producers. The state’s willingness to remove the Wedge Pack, Field said, should go a long way "to rebuild the trust and credibility of the department with ranchers."

Now the state is hoping to sign livestock owners to agreements calling for those grazers to work with wildlife officials in applying some of the state’s suggested non-lethal practices to dissuade wolf predation, such as altering grazing cycles to the use of rubber bullet.

What would those livestock owners get in response? A quicker route through the red tape of compensation — some of it funded by none other than Conservation Northwest — for the cost of range riders, other wolf-deterrent strategies and, when those strategies fail, for livestock losses.

The cattlemen’s association is actively recommending livestock owners sign the agreements. So far, though, only a handful have, none of them in Stevens County.

The first cattleman to sign? Sam Kayser.

"I’d like not to be a bitcher and not be a part of the situation," he said. "Anybody can bitch and whine.

"I’m not a real fan of Fish and Wildlife, but I think they’ve made a concerted effort on their part to work with cattlemen," he added, referencing both the Wedge Pack action and the agreements.

"Actions speak louder than words. (State wildlife officials) have done both. They’ve given us the words and they’re backing it up with actions."

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