Wolves In The Crosshairs

Ed Note: Laura Ackerman, a Spokane farmer and environmental activist, co-authored this story.

A wildlife tragedy began in Washington state on Aug. 7, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that a wolf in the Wedge Pack had killed a calf on a ranch close to Canada. Afterward, the rancher said that wolves were continuing to kill or maim his cattle. Wildlife staffers examined his claim and acknowledged that 16 animals had been killed or injured.

But this is the real tragedy: By Sept. 27, the entire Wedge Pack of eight wolves had been killed. The collared alpha male, shot from a helicopter, was the last to go. The pack was wiped out because the rancher dug in his heels. He refused to accept any reparation for his losses, insisting instead that the state's management plan for wolves needed to be rescinded.

Under that plan, ratified in 2011 after nine elaborate public hearings across the state, ranchers may receive payment for two grown beef cattle, in the case of a confirmed wolf kill, or one calf in the case of a probable kill.

The plan also requires ranchers and the agency to attempt all possible non-lethal alternatives before they resort to killing wolves. State wildlife officials urge "livestock operators to enter into cooperative, cost-sharing agreements with the department that specify non-lethal measures." State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D, says it's "inexcusable" that the state didn't "exhaust" non-lethal methods first.

Before wolves can be taken off the endangered species list, the plan says, there must be 15 breeding pairs in existence statewide for three years. If the state hopes to reach this goal, it will certainly need to discontinue management by rifle barrel.

State agents now say they are ready to try something called Chemical Bio-scent (a smelly repellent) as a non-lethal measure. We urge them also to try a tool called Conditioned Taste Aversion, developed by biologist Lowell Nicolaus, which applies worming medicine to cow carcasses to sicken feeding wolves. In classic Pavlovian conditioning, wolves soon learn that eating beef turns their stomachs. Nicolaus has adapted this technique successfully to change the behavior of wild crows and raccoons, and also used it on captive wolves.

Yet the problem with the Wedge Pack is not so much wolves preying on cattle as it is the continued grazing of livestock on our federal estate. Especially during the summer, when the predation is highest, the rancher's cows graze on public lands. That means American taxpayers pick up some of the tab for his herd. The rancher built his ranch, yes, but not without government help.

Taxpayers subsidize tens of thousands of U.S. cattle each year, and these cattle degrade the same habitats that are required by wolves' native prey. Science shows that cattle—an exotic species in the West—displace deer, elk, moose and other prey species. Grazing also undercuts sound wolf management efforts.

We believe that money to subsidize cattle grazing would be better spent on wolf recovery—restoring the range to the way it was before public-lands ranching became an institution. Ask most fans of outdoor recreation if they would rather watch wild species than cattle in wild areas, and you know what they will say.

Wolves and other large carnivores are keystone species in functioning ecosystems. A study conducted in 2012 by Oregon State University researchers concluded that the absence of carnivores—wolves especially—harms the land. Elk herds in Yellowstone, for instance, pruned willows and shrubs far back until gray wolves were reintroduced. An unnatural dearth of large carnivores allows herbivores to disrupt natural checks and balances.

Another scientific line would be to design an interstate, even international, conservation and management plan. Such a plan would consider wolf populations all over the West.

There is a lot at stake for taxpayers. The state's wildlife agency had to pay employees several weeks of overtime to chase down the Wedge Pack. A helicopter was in the air for four days. Sen. Ranker has asked the department for the final cost, as well as for a study of the comparative costs of lethal and non-lethal methods.

We can hardly wait to see that cost-benefit analysis. Whatever the price in blood, money and mismanaged compassion, this was the result: An entire wolf pack was killed for the sake of one ranch and its rancher.

Wolves in the West are here to stay. They don't comprehend state and national boundaries, but they understand their role in ecosystems. The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, the law of the land in Washington for now, is all the wolves have to protect them.

Let's give the "conservation" part of the plan a fighting chance.

This article first appeared on High Country News.