Perspectives on range riding and the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative
Conservation Northwest / Jan 27, 2020 / Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves
Last week, news broke that a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife investigation into alleged fraud by four range riders has been referred to the Thurston County prosecutor. The allegations stem from range riding activities invoiced to the state during the spring-summer 2018 grazing season.
Multiple range rider programs operate in Washington, including under the direction of the state, private ranches, Conservation Northwest and local grassroots cooperatives.
The range riders involved in this investigation were under contract with the state. They have never been under contract with Conservation Northwest (CNW). While CNW’s leadership was made aware of the state’s investigation shortly after it began in late 2018, we were not party to the inquiry nor privy to the findings until they were disclosed to the public.
When done right, range riding remains one of the most important strategies for preventing, and when necessary resolving, conflicts between livestock and wolves or other wildlife. Thorough range riding includes near daily supervision of livestock herds (including on foot or horseback as well as from vehicles), monitoring for sick, injured, deceased or isolated animals that may become a target for predators, and qualified wolf observation—for example documenting areas of high wolf activity where vigilance or herd management should increase.
Since 2011, Conservation Northwest has operated its own Range Rider Pilot Project, working with trained and vetted range riders, wolf biologists, local ranchers, and state and federal conflict specialists to supplement private and state range riding efforts and other conflict avoidance tactics. In the interest of diligently working to reduce interactions between wolves and livestock, our project has also hosted trainings with outside experts such as the Tom Miner Basin Association and Carter Niemeyer, helped acquire and implement fladry, fencing and other equipment, and provided significant staff time in the field.
Our Range Rider Pilot Project recently completed its ninth year of operation, employing three full-time range rider positions covering more than 130,000 acres of wolf territory in northeast Washington and the Central Cascades, as well as three “rapid response” range rider positions available to deploy to areas of emerging conflict. A field update from 2019 is available here.
Conservation Northwest’s Range Rider Pilot Project requires thorough screening of all contractors, documentation of range riding activities, and in-season and after-season reports detailing activities, incidents and lessons learned. In some cases GPS data is being used to document range riding activity for greater accountability.
Jay Shepherd, Ph.D. is Conservation Northwest’s Wolf Program Lead in charge of managing the Range Rider Pilot Project, working in coordination with our Policy Director and other senior staff. A Chewelah resident and career wildlife biologist, Shepherd also serves as the administrator and one of five board members for the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative (NEWWCC). The NEWWCC is an independent, grassroots non-profit organization operating range riding and other year-round conflict avoidance tactics in northeast Washington through grant support from the state Department of Agriculture. There are currently four other Board Members, including local biologists, ranchers and community leaders.
One of the range riders under investigation, Arron Scotten, is a former NEWWCC Board Member who resigned from that position on November 9th, 2018. After that he briefly helped NEWWCC night watch cattle in the territory of the Leadpoint Wolf Pack in northern Stevens County for 12 days/nights from mid-November to mid-December 2018. This is roughly the time period when both CNW and NEWWCC became aware of an investigation concerning Scotten and his family by WDFW into range riding irregularities while under state contract in the Kettle River Mountain Range of Ferry County.
Scotten has not been a NEWWCC Board Member, contracted worker, nor range rider since December 2018 when his association with NEWWCC ended. He is also considered innocent of charges filed until found guilty.
NEWWCC uses GPS units that accumulate geo-referenced photographs to document range riding and therefore provide accountability of the range riding effort. This has occurred since the inception of NEWWCCs range riding efforts and is found in the December 2017 Northeast Washington Wolf-Livestock Management Grant Application proposal.
We at Conservation Northwest are following this investigation closely, and support the state’s enforcement of diligent range riding activities in the interest of protecting both wolves and domestic livestock. We also support due process under our justice system, and encourage caution against drawing conclusions before the courts reach judgement in this case.