Can Washington state's wolves and ranchers find a way to coexist?

After a series of attacks on livestock, wildlife officials agreed to remove the Profanity Peak wolf pack. Can compromise satisfy both conservationists and cattlemen?

Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP
This April 18, 2008, file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a gray wolf.

After a series of attacks on livestock, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) authorized state officials to cull the wolf pack responsible – a decision that has prompted backlash from conservation groups throughout the state.

The WDFW has linked six cattle deaths to the Profanity Peak pack, a group of 11 gray wolves near Kettle Falls. State wildlife officials had shot two pack members earlier this month, but suspended removal efforts after livestock killings ceased.

“At that time, we said we would restart this operation if there was another wolf attack, and now we have three,” Donny Martorello, head of wolf policy at WDFW, said in a statement. “The department is committed to wolf recovery, but we also have a shared responsibility to protect livestock from repeated depredation by wolves.”

The dispute is just one of many that pit cattlemen against conservationists in the Pacific Northwest. But there are compromises which could satisfy officials, ranchers, and environmentalists alike.

At one time, the gray wolf was one of the most widely distributed animals on the planet. The species was found naturally throughout most of the northern hemisphere, until it was hunted to near-extinction in the 1930s. Wolf populations slowly rebounded after receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, but the species is still considered locally endangered in some northern states.

In Washington, the Profanity Peak pack is one of just eight packs with successful breeding pairs. There are fewer than 20 total wolf packs in the state, and a total of 90 individuals. Conservationists aim to preserve these populations, which play an important role in both national heritage and local ecosystem flow.

But to cattlemen, the gray wolf is a menace. Many of these livestock owners have used the same business practices for generations – practices that didn’t account for wolves, which were virtually nonexistent at the time.

Now, wolf populations are growing and brushing up against open range ranchers. The resulting attacks are financially devastating, as cattle can cost up to $2,000 per individual. And since only federal officials are allowed to kill wolves legally, many livestock owners feel that their livelihoods are not adequately protected.

But some new problems call for old solutions.

In the early days of American ranching, cowboys stayed close to their herds. But when wolf populations dropped in the beginning of the 20th century, many thinned their staff to increase profit. Now, the Range Rider Pilot Project – a collaborative effort between Conservation Northwest, a Washington-based environmental group, and seven cattle ranchers in the state – hires range riders to monitor herds on horseback.

Often, just human presence is enough to deter a wolf pack. Ranch partners can also receive up to $9,000 toward nonlethal livestock protection equipment, such as tracking collars and automated sirens. The WFDF has also provided similar subsidies throughout the state.

In most project areas, the nonprofit has successfully reduced conflicts between wolves and cattlemen. Between 2012 and 2014, participating ranchers didn’t lose any livestock to wolf attacks.

“We're seeing a promising increase in these practices and social tolerance for wolves in the last few years, in part through collaboration and cost-sharing with the state,” says Chase Gunnell, a spokesperson for Conservation Northwest, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

In 2013, Oregon also experimented with nonlethal livestock protection, and achieved moderate success despite growing wolf populations. But while range riding and other preventative measures have worked in many cases, none is 100 percent effective.

In 2015, Conservation Northwest ranching partners lost three cows to depredation. Some wolf groups, such as the Profanity Peak pack, have attacked livestock in spite of nonlethal prevention methods. In those cases, Gunnell says, state officials must defer to last-resort solutions.

“Achieving these long term goals requires compromise,” Gunnell says, “including new proactive and costly efforts from ranchers and sometimes the removal of wolves that are preying on livestock despite those efforts. This is a fact of responsible wolf recovery, and though it can be heartrending, it won’t stop wolves from flourishing in our region over the long run.”

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