Editorial: Washington's Failed Wolf Removal
Washington Wolf Pack Thrives After 27 Attacks on Cattle
by Editorial by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
July 31, 2019
Knowing his agencyís every action with wolves is closely watched, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) Director Kelly Susewind has adopted an incremental approach to removing livestock-killing wolves from northeastern Washingtonís OPT pack Ė a pack with a history of chronic livestock-killing behavior. The result is ongoing attacks to livestock as the pack racks up kill after kill, wounded calf after wounded calf.
No longer under federal protection in the northeastern part of Washington, wolves remain under protection by the stateís endangered species law, even though that region of the state has more than three times the number of breeding pairs needed to meet recovery goals.
Last year the OPT pack had 16 confirmed depredations in two months, and two wolves were lethally removed by wildlife officials. This springís successful breeding in the pack of five adults resulted in the pack having at least nine wolves. The pack was confirmed to have been involved in three cattle depredations in January, and in early July another depredation was confirmed, bringing the total to 20 depredations. WDFW culled one adult male wolf from the pack on July 13, but then entered what it calls an "evaluation period" to determine if the incremental removal would change the packís behavior.
It didnít. Within a week the pack added another four cattle attacks to its rap sheet. Meanwhile, WDFW Director Susewind continued to assess this situation and was "considering next steps."
Another week passes, and the pack racks up three more attacks on cattle. By the first of August, the pack has been involved in 27 attacks on livestock since early September.
A 2015 paper by wolf managers in the Northern Rocky Mountains found that "full pack removal was the most effective management response to reduce future livestock depredations in a local area." The researchers studied nearly 1,000 depredations by 156 known wolf packs in the tri-state area (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana), comparing the management response to depredations: no removal, partial pack removal, and full pack removal. The researchers found: "Partial pack removal was only slightly more effective in reducing depredation recurrence than no removal, and then only if it occurred within the first 7 days after the depredation. Partial pack removal resulted in a median of only 45 days additional time without depredations compared to no removal."
The researchers noted that wolf depredation on livestock is a learned behavior "and therefore may be difficult to stop if all individuals in a pack are involved," a finding repeated in a Montana research paper published in 2018 which noted, "There is some evidence to suggest that livestock depredations are a learned behavior by particular wolves, who become more likely to target livestock after an initial event."
Thus, it appears that sometimes incremental removal of problem wolves may serve to reinforce problem behavior rather than the intended effect of stopping the problem. Itís past time for WDFW Director Kelly Susewind to recognize that fact. Itís understandable that state wildlife managers want to take a conservative approach to wolf removal when a population is vulnerable, but that isnít the case with Washingtonís OPT pack. This packís territory is surrounded by other wolf packs, so its territory would quickly be filled by wolves from adjacent areas in this rapidly expanding wolf population Ė a population that is experiencing an average annual growth rate of 28%.
The cattle producer impacted by this pack hasnít been sitting on his laurels while the killing takes place. WDFW has a long list of the variety of measures taken, from delayed turn-out of cattle, to range riders, and "The producer is continuing to coordinate patrols of the grazing area with WDFW and county staff, removing or securing livestock carcasses to avoid attracting wolves to the rest of the herd, using Fox lights at salting and watering locations to deter wolves, and removing sick and injured livestock (when discovered) from the grazing area until they are healed."
Although area livestock producers and agency personnel have deployed a variety of non-lethal methods to deter wolf depredation, it has not succeeded in stopping the attacks.
WDFW staff noted in a report on July 10, "WDFW staff believe depredations are likely to continue in the near future even with the current and responsive nonlethal tools being utilized. The lethal removal of wolves in the OPT pack is not expected to harm the wolf populationís ability to reach the statewide recovery objective."
Three days later, agency officials lethally removed one wolf, but the remaining members of the pack continue to kill cattle. Yet as of July 30, Director Susewind is still "assessing this situation and considering next steps."
Itís past time for Director Susewind to quit putting off the inevitable: This wolf pack needs taken out. To continue to allow this level of depredation on legally present livestock is cruel and unnecessary. Itís not saving any wolves, and itís certainly not saving any cattle.