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Wolves, Cattle, Culture Clash in Public Lands Standoff

Aug. 24, 2019, 11:00 AM

The killing of a pack of wolves by Washington state wildlife officials to protect grazing cattle likely violated state law, a state court judge says.

This week’s ruling was the latest development in the state’s quandary over how to protect both gray wolves living on—and domestic cattle grazing on—vast stretches of public lands, a problem familiar in other parts of the West as well.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sharpshooters this month took out all seven members of the Old Profanity Territory pack because the wolves had preyed on cattle from the Diamond M Ranch grazing in the remote Colville National Forest.

But King County Superior Court Judge John F. McHale wrote in an Aug. 22 ruling that the agency didn’t fully consider Diamond M’s failure to take appropriate nonlethal measures before shooting the wolves. If the wolf-livestock conflict could have been avoided, the kill order wouldn’t have been necessary, McHale said.

Dueling Land Uses

Like ranchers nationwide, Diamond M pays $1.35 per month for each cow and its calf to feed on public lands. But the same area in the state’s Kettle Range is also where wolves live.

Washington state law protects wolves. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined wolves in eastern Washington, where the ranch is located, no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act. Citing recovery of the population, the agency proposed removing all gray wolves from that protection.

Diamond M patriarch Len McIrvin told Bloomberg Environment that while the government pays ranchers for the cattle killed by wolves, the amount is too low to offset losses. “If we took the money, we’d still be out of business because it’s only 10 or 15% of our loss,” McIrvin said.

McIrvin told Bloomberg Environment his family has been the target of death threats since the wolves were killed, and said that several cows in the area were shot, but it’s not known who did it. The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force are now looking into threats of violence made against ranchers and state wildlife officials on social media, according to McIrvin and Steve Pozzanghera, regional director of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The FBI declined to comment.

‘A Single Livestock Owner’

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said it “removed” 30 wolves in the state since 2012 and cattle are still being preyed upon. It said Washington had at least 126 wolves at the end of 2018.

Environmental activists say, and wildlife officials concur, that most of the wolf predation on cattle—and most of the culling of wolves—involves Diamond M.

And Seattle attorney Jon Bashford, who represented three residents in seeking to enjoin the Old Profanity Territory pack wolf kills, says the department is killing wolves mainly to benefit the Diamond M.

“WDFW has killed 23 wolves from seven packs, resulting in the near or total destruction of three packs,” he wrote in an Aug. 15 petition. “WDFW killed 19 of these 23 wolves, and targeted all three wolf packs for extermination, for the benefit of a single livestock owner.”

Bashford filed the petition the day before the department shot the last members of the Old Profanity Territory pack where Diamond M runs its cows. It killed three of the wolves earlier in the month and the last four known members of the pack on Aug. 16.

Hours later, McHale told the department to stop further killing of the pack in an order from the bench. And McHale issued a written preliminary injunction Aug. 22 that bans the state agency from killing wolves in the pack’s territory.

Pozzanghera said the department doesn’t believe it acted improperly. “We believe that Diamond M has taken nonlethal measures consistent with the department wolf-livestock interaction protocol,” he said.

Protecting Cattle or ‘One Bad Actor’?

Wolves and cattle can’t mix, McIrvin said.

The Diamond M loses some 70 head a year to wolves, which during the past 10 years amounts to “well over a million dollars in loss,” he said.

“I’ve told WDFW many times: If you leave us alone we’ll take care of our own wolves,” McIrvin said. “We won’t kill any more wolves than the state does and it won’t cost the taxpayer a cent.”

But Claire Loebs Davis, an attorney for Animal & Earth Advocates PLLC in Seattle, said: “Diamond M is destroying the system for everybody by failing to do their part.”

Davis also represents the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands in cases challenging wolf-kill orders.

“It’s not an irreconcilable conflict. It’s the fact that you have one bad actor that the state continues to reward by giving them what they want,” Davis claimed. “And that’s why 26 of the 30 wolves the department has killed have been on behalf of Diamond.”

Davis further claimed that “Diamond M has knowingly put its cattle in harm’s way, refused to take steps to protect them and then asked the state to kill wolves when those cattle have come to harm.”

Nonlethal Measures

Nonlethal measures to deter wolves include strategic placement of strobe lights, guard dogs, fencing, turning out animals onto the range when they are older and less vulnerable, and deploying range riders to watch over the cows.

But McIrvin said the use of some nonlethal means such as ranger riders borders on ludicrous, given the expanse of virtually impenetrable territory in the Colville National Forest.

“I’m not saying this to be critical of the range riders, but there are hundreds and thousands of acres he can’t even get to,” he said. “The wolves are so secretive and they work at night. There’s nothing they can do in this rough country.”

Before the department’s most recent wolf killings, it first complied with its own protocols mandating that Diamond M had taken at least two nonlethal measures to deter wolves from killing cattle, Pozzanghera said. And he points out that the species is on track for recovery in the state.

But Bashford said internal state wildlife department documents submitted as evidence in the court case show that department officials were concerned over the quality and intensity of Diamond M’s nonlethal deterrent efforts.

Pozzanghera said the continuing cycle of cattle being killed, wolves being “removed,” followed by new wolves coming back and killing more cattle isn’t working.

“We can’t continue down the same path and expect to see different results,” he said. “We would like the goal to be both a minimization of livestock kill and wolves killed. Both sides would agree we have not been able to meet that goal.”

The case is: Huskinson v. Wash. Dep’t of Fish and Wildlife, Wash. Super. Ct., No. 19-2-20227-1 SEA, preliminary injunction granted 8/22/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at pshukovsky@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com