(The Center Square) – The deaths of four wolves in northern Stevens County have added a new twist to the controversy over state management of the apex predators.
The Kettle Range Conservation Group and others claim the dead wolves were deliberately poisoned, although the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has provided no evidence to support that claim.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and Scott Nielsen, Stevens County rancher and treasurer of Washington Cattle Producers, believe environmental groups could be using the deaths to further a political agenda. Wolf advocates and Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration are pushing for greater protection measures.
“We don’t know what happened and we really don’t need people stirring the pot without facts to back up their claims,” said Nielsen.
He said the wolves could have succumbed to a disease or another cause of death, so everyone needs to wait for the results of WDFW’s investigation.
Kretz said the state has slowly transferred the burden of managing a growing wolf population onto ranchers. Therefore, he said it is not inconceivable that a rancher struggling to cope with continuing herd losses due to depredations caused the wolf deaths.
“If you’re being put out of businesses because the state isn’t living up to its own policies, then what do you have to lose?” he asked.
However, Kretz said the rule of law must prevail in a civil society. So, if ranchers and people living on the east side of the Cascade Crest don’t like “failed” state policies that threaten their way of life, they need to put their energies into getting new lawmakers elected.
Washington Wildlife First has responded to the deaths by offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of “wolf killers.” The nonprofit is calling upon WDFW “to be honest about the extent of wolf poaching in the state.”
That call is based upon WDFW not immediately reporting the discovery of the four dead wolves in Northeast Washington on Feb. 8. Deputies with the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office reported finding the carcasses while on a snowmobile patrol of forest roads near the Canadian border.
Environmentalists say the incident report published by the sheriff’s office was how they recently learned about the deaths, not from the state.
“The department should be honest with the Washington public about what is happening to wolves in our state,” posted Wildlife First Executive Director Samantha Bruegger on the group’s website. “The department has been dodging questions on poaching for months, and sometimes lying outright to the public. The department continually asks the members of the public to ‘trust’ it, but how can we trust an agency that has been so consistently dishonest with us?”
During the past couple of years, there have been four poaching incidents involving wolves in Northeastern Washington that have been reported by state officials.
The Center Square contacted WDFW about the discovery of carcasses and was told, “Because this incident is under active investigation by law enforcement, no further information is being provided at this time.”
The deceased wolves were in the Wedge Pack territory, in northern Stevens County above Churchill Mine Road on Forest Service Road 180. That pack was first confirmed in 2012 but, the same year, WDFW killed all members following repeated attacks on livestock from the Diamond M Ranch.
By 2020, the pack had repopulated in the area and WDFW again had to kill all members due to repeated attacks on the same herd.
Since wolves were re-introduced into neighboring states and settled in Washington in 2008, the population has grown rapidly. There was a minimum of 206 wolves and 33 packs by late 2021, according to an annual survey conducted by WDFW and tribal biologists.
Kretz and Nielsen contend the state is underreporting the real number of wolf packs in the state. They say that ranchers in Northeastern Washington, where most wolves reside, are seeing too much activity to mesh with state numbers.
The threat from wolves has grown so great, said Nielsen, that Cattle Producers has obtained state grants the past several years to put range riders in the field. Nielsen said ranchers in northern Ferry and Stevens counties are so besieged by wolf threats that there are not enough range riders to be everywhere they need to be.
He said the state’s answer to the fact that non-lethal measures to ward off depredations are not working is to now require that ranchers keep a log of the time they spend in the field. If they do not produce a detailed account of their watchdog activities, they cannot qualify for compensation when there are losses. That log even has to note their movement on private lands.
“Ranchers don’t work for the state,” said Kretz. “Why should they have to jump through another hoop when the state can’t be held accountable for not complying with its own wolf management plan?”
Even when wolf depredations reach levels to trigger a legal hunt, Kretz said problem animals aren’t eliminated most of the time.
When a rancher does qualify for compensation, he said many don’t apply because the funding “comes with strings.” State officials are given a say into how the producers operates the ranch.
Kretz’s assertion is bolstered by WDFW reporting that only $20,866 was spent in 2021 on four claims for livestock losses due to wolves. Diamond M Ranch in northern Ferry and Stevens counties alone reports the loss of about 70 cows and calves per year, which would drive that cost up significantly.
Staci Lehman, spokesperson for the agency, said $1.4 million was spent on wolf management activities in 2021. In addition to the compensation paid, she said 30 livestock producers were reimbursed $111,649 for non-lethal conflict prevention expenses, including specialized lighting and fencing.
Another $205,969 was paid to 23 contracted range riders.
The agency legally hunted and killed two wolves for depredations, a cost of $19,957.
Slightly over $1 million was spent on wolf management and research activities, said Lehman.