Getting to fewer conflicts between wolves and livestock in Washington

Getting to fewer conflicts between wolves and livestock in Washington

ConservationNWAdmin / Jul 23, 2020 / Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

This is shaping up to be a challenging season between wolves, livestock, ranchers and conservationists. Collaboration and creative thinking are our best tools to find common ground and a path forward.

BY PAULA SWEDEEN, PH.D., POLICY DIRECTOR AND WOLF ADVISORY GROUP REPRESENTATIVE

The last few years have been tough for almost everyone in the Kettle River Mountain Range of northeast Washington, with conflicts involving the Profanity Peak, OPT, Togo and Wedge wolf packs. This blog updates on these challenges and presents the views of Conservation Northwest on a possible way forward.

Most recently, the Togo Wolf Pack was involved in livestock depredations in 2018, 2019 and again in early June. And earlier this month the Wedge Wolf Pack in the northeastern corner of the Kettles has killed and injured more than a dozen cows.

Read further details on recent wolf-livestock conflicts in our July 15 update.

Today, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) authorized the lethal removal of one wolf from the Wedge Pack “in response to repeated depredations of cattle on grazing lands in Stevens County”. July 27 update: WDFW has killed one wolf from the Wedge Pack and is now in an evaluation period.

Considering this is the fifth consecutive year of conflict with one of the livestock producers (ranches) involved, we are disappointed and concerned about the potential for severe social consequences, as well as the prospect that chronic conflicts and recurrent wolf removals in the Kettle Range are undermining statewide wolf recovery and coexistence.

No doubt the high number of recent attacks on livestock by wolves from the Wedge Pack, including on private lands, is extremely stressful for the ranchers involved. And they likely see this as the fault of wolves, or inadequate management by the state. But enduring so many years of killing wolves as a response to depredations on cows for the same livestock operation may be more than our state’s already-frayed social debate around these issues can bear.

A curious wolf inspects a remote camera in Washington’s North Cascades. Photo: David Moskowitz

At some point, Washingtonians and elected leaders get to legitimately ask whether there is a better way to handle these situations than annual lethal wolf removal at taxpayers’ expense.

Conservation Northwest wants to see stakeholders—including affected livestock producers, the state, the Forest Service and our fellow Wolf Advisory Group representatives—collaborate on behalf of alternate solutions instead of killing more wolves in this area.

We’ll provide further perspectives in a separate statement on the Wedge Pack soon.

Improvements to Protocol, range riding standards needed

As we’ve seen in past summers in the northern Kettle Range, tempers are flaring, lawsuits have been filed, and there are too many dead wolves and cows.

From everything we’ve learned in a decade of working on wolf recovery and coexistence, both in-the-field and in the policy arena, there are a few things we think might make a difference in reducing these gut-wrenching cycles of wolf-livestock conflict.

First off, the steep and heavily-forested country of the Kettle Range in Ferry County and the adjacent Wedge area (between the Kettle and Columbia rivers) in Stevens County is difficult to cover with just a few range riders. It is also not conducive to the kinds of herd management that can make it easier to aggregate cows to better defend themselves by “herding up” in meadows and pastures, as well as keeping them in relatively open areas that are easier to monitor.

Those factors suggest that increasing the number of people and the hours they are out checking on cows on these vexing grazing allotments on both national forests and private lands could increase the potential for successfully deterring wolves from attacking livestock. It also makes a difference when riders are able to camp out near the cattle to detect activity in evening, night and early morning hours.

We worked with state legislators during this past supplemental budget year to increase the amount of funds available to hire range riders to work in the Kettle Range north of Sherman Pass, where much of the depredations and wolf lethal removals have occurred. Thankfully, legislature agreed with the idea and appropriated $320,000 to increase the availability of riders. These funds are in addition to the $800,000 appropriated in Washington’s 2019 biennial budget for deterrence work through both WDFW and Department of Agriculture programs, with our lobbying support.

Read more about this effort in this December 2019 op-ed in The Spokesman Review by Representative Joel Kretz and Jay Shepherd, our Wolf Program Lead.

Using this additional funding, the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative (NEWWCC) is working with four different ranches on more than 70,000 acres on five national forest grazing allotments and adjacent private lands in the Kettle Range this season. They are employing approximately 16 riders rotating through these areas, with ten full-time equivalent people out on the ground. These riders spend extended hours and camp out with the cows when necessary. They also document their work with written logs and frequent geo-referenced photos. Learn more in our start-of-season range riding update.

Our hope was that NEWWCC’s riders would be invited to help on the allotments on which most of the depredations happened involving the OPT and Profanity packs in recent years, but this has not yet occurred. They are however covering other adjacent and nearby allotments within the new Kettle Pack territory, and are in the Togo Pack, along with ranch staff, WDFW contract riders and field support from our Wolf Program Lead.

While it is unfortunate that a livestock depredation by the Togo Pack occurred in late May, we think the high level of range riding activity and near constant coverage in that territory has kept depredations low compared to what they could have been. The ranchers, range riders and coexistence partners in the Togo Pack area have done their best to keep conflicts to a minimum. Just today, the lethal control operation was suspended, with no more depredations and no wolves removed.  And so far, things remain quiet in the territory of new Kettle Pack.

We should note that none of NEWWCC or CNW’s range riders have been asked to work with ranchers in the Wedge Pack area, despite offers.

A range rider at work in northeast Washington. Photo: Jay Shepherd

Standardizing range riding in the Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol

A second issue at hand is the need for clearer guidance in WDFW’s Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol on expectations of range riding to ensure accountability for state-funded riders (through WDFW contracts or grants from the Washington Department of Agriculture), especially in the wake of alleged misuse of those funds by one range riding operation, as well as to standardize range riding efforts by livestock producers and other parties.

We have been working for months with other members of the Wolf Advisory Group to improve the definition and expectations for range riding in an updated version of the Protocol. The new language lays out expectations around frequency of checking on livestock, including that animals need to be checked almost daily with no more than a two-day gap. It also lays out expectations for hazing wolves away from livestock and ensuring carcasses or sick and injured animals are removed.

Additionally, there is an emphasis on communication and coordination among riders, ranchers and WDFW conflict specialists with the goal of increasing the potential for successful deterrence through better information sharing and deployment of resources to the places they are needed most.

A key point to emphasize in these changes to the Protocol is that the requirement to check on livestock near-daily means there needs to be enough riders deployed in areas with wolf activity (including off roads and into forested areas) so that all portions of grazing allotments with cattle or sheep can be visited at that frequency. That is the only likely way in which issues can be detected in time to prevent further depredations.

It will also be explicit that range riders who are wholly paid for by the state will track their activities via recorded data from GPS devices, and range riders employed by ranchers directly will report detailed information on their activities (though without the GPS requirement for privacy purposes). These are reasonable requirements given the wide availability of this hand-held equipment and the use of taxpayer funds. The bottom line is there will be better accountability measures for all range riding activity, whether by the state, private ranchers or non-profit cooperatives and organizations.

A wolf track photographed this spring in an area where range riders operate. Photo: Jay Shepherd

The process to get this language in place has been frustratingly slow. We have been firmly and persistently advocating for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to adopt the new range riding language for this season, while the WAG continues to hammer out other changes to the Protocol. Given the frequency of wolf-livestock conflict already this summer, we hope to see that accomplished as soon as possible. In the meantime, WDFW reports that they are taking these proposed updates into account as they evaluate range riding effort in on-going conflicts.

Last but not least, there is the on-going work of relationship building and maintenance. Loads of cash and well-crafted words on paper can’t overcome a lack of trust or willingness. From a rancher’s perspective, trying to protect one’s livelihood in the face of changing markets and the idiosyncrasies of weather is hard enough. Keeping wolves from harming their animals is another level of challenge and one that most feel like they did not ask for

Without empathy, patience, respectful listening, genuine attempts to support each other in solving problems, and instilling a sense of ownership in solutions among local residents and livestock producers, implementing quality wolf-livestock conflict deterrence measures is impossible.

The summer of 2020 is shaping up to be a particularly challenging season between wolves, livestock, producers and conservationists. Collaboration and creative thinking are our best tools to find common ground and an effective path forward.

LEARN MORE ABOUT COEXISTENCE WITH WOLVES, RECENT WOLF-LIVESTOCK CONFLICTS, AND OUR RANGE RIDING EFFORTS THIS SEASON.
A wolf recently photographed in the Teanaway area of Washington’s Central Cascades, where heavy range riding has prevented conflicts in recent years. Photo: WDFW