Fact-checking the debate over the Profanity Peak Wolf Pack

Fact-checking the debate over the Profanity Peak Wolf Pack

ConservationNWAdmin / Oct 16, 2016 / Wolves

A wolf photographed in the Kettle River Mountain Range this summer by our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project. Photo: CWMP/CNW

Here we intend to clarify what is known, in the interest of reducing the disagreement and tension around this issue that are based in confusion.

There has been much anguish and grief over the tragic events in northern Ferry County, northeast Washington this summer involving the depredations of cattle by the Profanity Peak Wolf Pack and the resulting decisions by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to kill members of that pack.

As of Wednesday October 19, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has suspended their efforts to cull remaining members of the Profanity Peak Wolf Pack.

WDFW has confirmed that the pack has killed or injured at least 15 cows since early July. Since early August, the Department has killed seven wolves from the pack.

We have been following this issue closely and communicating regularly with WDFW and Forest Service officials, other conservation groups, independent wolf experts, elected officials and others involved on the ground and around the state. More of our perspectives can be found in this post from August 31.

As this incident has proceeded, understandable emotions have sometimes been tangled with allegations or misunderstandings of facts. Here we intend to clarify what is known, in the interest of reducing the disagreement and tension around this issue that are based in confusion.

Claim: The state’s actions reduced Washington’s wolf population by 12 percent, putting recovery at risk 

What is Known: Groups making this allegation base it on flawed math, basically dividing the number of Profanity wolves into WDFW’s official minimum estimate of 90 wolves in the state’s population at the end of 2015. But the latter is well understood to be a conservative estimate, not counting undiscovered packs, elusive and lone wolves, and the growth of the ensuing year. We are confident that today there are significantly more than 90 wolves in our state.

More importantly, Washington’s wolf population as a whole is functionally linked to larger contiguous populations in Idaho and British Columbia, as well as northeast Oregon’s small population. The area of northeast Washington where these events have occurred contains more than a half dozen confirmed wolf packs, with additional packs nearby in Canada and Idaho. WDFW’s lethal take actions therefore will not alter a trajectory toward recovery. Our state wolf population is robust, growing by as much as 30 percent per year in recent years. WDFW modeling research indicates that the population is likely to continue to grow at a similar rate in the future despite this sad impact.

Claim: Killing wolves violates the religion and/or rights of Native Americans

What is Known: Native American tribes vary in their cultures, religious views, and policies. Most tribes have their own sovereign, elected government that represents official interests. Conservation Northwest respects the sovereignty, rights and interests of Native American tribes and Canadian First Nations. In doing so, we respect the policies and positions of the elected governments representing the tribes whose territory is involved.

In this case, the Profanity Peak Pack roams the “north half” of land to which the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation have treaty rights. The 12 confederated tribes work through an elected council and the staff it directs. The position of the Colville tribes on this issue is explained in this letter from the tribal chairman. Further background on Colville wolf conservation and management programs is available in this article from Indian Country Today.

The Colville wolf management plan includes a wolf hunting season and wolf lethal removal actions if determined necessary by the tribes’ wildlife management subdivision. Other nations such as the Spokane Tribe of Indians have similar policies. Washington’s attorney general has also written a letter clarifying how the state recognizes tribal interests in this instance.

Claim: The rancher deliberately baited the wolves 

What is Known: Without invoking any judgments about the character or history of the rancher involved, the record does not support this allegation. The state’s official timeline of events is here, and its details align with Conservation Northwest’s understanding of the events as they occurred.

For the rancher to have deliberately “put salt licks on the rendezvous site” or “released his cattle on top of the den”, he would have had to have known where those sites were. But there’s no evidence that anybody had such knowledge at that point in time. The terrain involved is big, rugged, wooded and wild, enough so that wolf locations couldn’t be expected to be readily known. Those locations become known only when the state has managed to trap and fit one or more wolves with a collar that transmits radio and/or GPS signals, and then gathers data from those collars. Two Profanity wolves were collared right around the same time the rancher had released his cattle. The location of the den was not determined from collar data until two weeks after cattle were turned out. Given the timing of release and determination of the den location, it was not possible for the producer to knowingly turn the cattle out on top of the den site and the release site ended up being 4-5 miles from the den site.

There is some confusion because a female Profanity wolf was also collared in the summer of 2015. But that collared wolf moved south to become the Sherman Pack, and hence generated no timely data on Profanity Peak Pack locations in 2016.

There is further confusion caused by statements made by a Washington State University researcher. Those statements were retracted, with WSU officially disavowing themWe can’t explain what caused the researcher, who is a respected biologist with a strong record of quality research, to misrepresent facts, but we know that when pressed he could not back up his statements, and acknowledged he “had no basis in fact for making such a statement”.

This researcher has a group of associates still working on field studies, the results of which we expect to provide insight into wolf behavior, ecology, and effective predation deterrence measures. We appreciate the University’s apology and the researcher’s willingness to correct the record. CNW deeply hopes that somehow we all get past this event and that society continues to benefit from essential quality research from these parties.

Claim: It’s unclear whether the cattle depredations were done by wolves 

What is Known: Well-trained staff from WDFW evaluated every livestock injury and carcass using a respected forensic methodology. Officials have documented ten confirmed and five probable depredations for a total of 15 at this time, which likely underestimates the incidents due to the challenge of locating all carcasses. Additional issues beyond those measured include cattle scattered, injured while running, and potentially stressed enough to have failed to obtain normal weight growth.. Any notion that the herd and the rancher have not suffered deeply or that wolves were not responsible is unsupportable.

Claim: The Forest Service needed to do more to prevent the incidents

What is Known: At the time that the conflict began, the Forest Service was unaware of the locations of the wolves and therefore could not have modified grazing plans accordingly. Moreover, the ways to reduce the risk of conflict normally involves more human presence with the herd, rather than trying to separate cattle from the wolves. Each wolf pack ranges a vast area, often overlapping multiple grazing allotments and making physical separation difficult. We also know from extensive collar data and range rider observations from Washington as well as other states that cows spend abundant time near wolf rendezvous and den sites without conflict.

Some argue that the Forest Service should not allow livestock to graze our public lands. But this policy is set by Congress, which has shown little indication of readiness to substantially alter it. Meanwhile, in a nation of laws, the Forest Service must implement the laws and policies as they exist. Some argue that the Forest Service should not allow livestock to graze in occupied wolf habitat, but almost the entirety of the Colville National Forest (like many of the national forests of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming) is now occupied wolf habitat, so no modest adjustment would be effective.

While more discussion is needed on how to prevent such conflicts in the future where wolves and livestock share space on national forest grazing allotments, and perhaps there are parts of the landscape where the terrain or other factors make them enough prone to conflict to warrant unique attention, current policies dictate that the major focus be on coexistence and more intensive use of preventative measures.

Claim: Local residents have been authorized by the county to kill wolves

What is Known: While the commissioners of multiple counties did openly discuss at their late July meeting forming a vigilante presence, WDFW and other officials have confirmed that the Ferry County sheriff did not authorize locals to remove remaining Profanity Peak wolves.

Nor would the county or the sheriff have that power over wildlife, which is legally under the management of the state. Only WDFW is authorized to actively kill members of the Profanity Peak Wolf Pack, and the agency must do so under approved management protocols. Washington law does allow citizens to take lethal action in response to wolves or other predators caught in the act of attacking pets or livestock in areas where they are no longer federally endangered.

In late August the Ferry County commissioners did pass a resolution calling on the county sheriff to remove Profanity Peak Pack wolves. However, that resolution is ceremonial posturing, does not carry legal weight or merit, and has not been acted on. State officials have noted that a county ordinance (which is different from a resolution) of this kind would be in conflict with state law and would almost certainly be overruled by a judge.

Claim: Profanity Peak wolves attacked a pet dog and are a “public safety concern”

What is Known: Several area media outlets recently carried a story alleging that wolves attacked a pet dog named “Biscuit” on a farm north of the town of Republic, south of the Profanity Peak wolves’ territory. These claims were amplified by allegations from some hardliners among the ranching community, who without evidence posted comments that the incident was the work of Profanity Peak Pack wolves and claimed the pack was now a “public safety concern”. The dog was treated by a veterinarian and survived.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife specialists examined the dog’s bite wounds and the areas where the event occurred and concluded that based on the severity of wounds and the bite size, the attack was the work of non-wolf canids. It is likely that coyotes were responsible. The following is a quote from the WDFW incident report:

“There was no wolf, cougar, or bear sign at the scene, and only coyote tracks were observed in the vicinity. The injuries were not consistent with a wolf or other large carnivore due to their size and severity.”

Wolves do occasionally attack dogs, particularly dogs encountered within their perceived territory. And we do not intend to diminish the severity of this occurrence for the pet owner. However, there is no credible evidence to assert this instance was the work of wolves and trained experts have not come to that conclusion. More information on keeping dogs safe in wolf country is available here.

Claim: Wolf removal doesn’t increase social tolerance

Complicated. A recent study in Wisconsin and Michigan by researchers Chapron and Treves and a larger body of research have caused some to argue that killing depredating wolves does not build goodwill for predators among rural communities and is not strategically sound.

First, it’s important to recognize that scientific research from 2015 by researchers Bradley, et al. indicates that killing depredating wolves can reduce livestock losses at least for a period of time. This matter is complicated as 2014 research by Wielgus and Peebles concluded that in some cases lethal removals increase future depredations, but that result was later brought into question by a 2015 University of Washington reanalysis. The 2014 Wielgus and 2015 Bradley studies were also done at different spatial scales, which affects analytical results. The 2015 study examined return time to depredations at the level of the pack. However, there is not comprehensive research showing how early preventative interventions affect overall outcome in terms of frequency of depredations and the impact of occasional lethal removal on wolf-livestock interactions. More research on the effects of lethal removal on subsequent pack behavior at the appropriate spatial scale, in combination with the effectiveness of preventative measures in changing pack behavior, is needed.

We will address the research on lethal removal and social tolerance in another blog post soon. In brief, what makes studies claiming that lethal removal does not increase social tolerance perplexing is the vastly different perspectives we hear from people who live and work in areas with recolonized wolf populations. Every producer we have worked with in either our Range Rider Pilot Project or in policy discussions on and beyond the Wolf Advisory Group states that lethal management needs to be on the table. Without it, there would be little to no motivation to engage in the use preventative measures, something we have heard from longstanding and successful coexistence efforts in Montana as well. We have also observed an increased openness and rate of uptake of preventative measures by ranchers and other rural residents after members of the conservation community agreed to a specific protocol for lethal removal, as indicated by the chart below from a presentation on WDFW’s Wolf Conservation and Management 2015 Annual Report.

Wolf Conservation and Management 2015 Annual Report mar1816_21_presentation

What we are told and what we have observed is that the frustration and sense of having other peoples’ values imposed upon mostly rural communities without understanding the cost contributes to intense political opposition to wolves. In the absence of genuine efforts to come to some understanding and accommodation for dealing with chronic depredations, we see backlash in the form of proposed legislation removing wolves from the State ESA prematurely in order to allow hunting. While there is no direct evidence in Washington, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that such cultural frustrations could lead to increased poaching. Particularly as we have also heard sentiments from other wildlife stakeholders, notably hunters, that having lethal removal on the table is a requirement for building tolerance and reducing hostilities towards wolves among their communities.

These experiences do not comport with the sentiment and some research from other parts of the country that allowing targeted lethal removal only encourages more killing. And based on our experience to date, our working hypothesis is that having lethal wolf removal available as a last resort helps lead to greater social acceptance for wolves and less hostility, political opposition, and poaching; threats that will cause far more damage to recovery than the occasional state removal of a wolf pack from areas where they are relatively numerous. Research specific to our setting, and that addresses the full depth of issues driving conflict over wolves, is needed to provide greater clarity on these issues.