It's been a sickening week in the Pacific Northwest.
Snipers, including gunners in helicopters, have snuffed out half of Washington state's Profanity Peak wolf pack and have put the rest of the pack in the crosshairs. This wolf family has been shattered by the loss of the breeding alpha female and five other members. All that's left is an adult male and a few 4-month-old pups.
By the time you read this, the pack could be wiped out -- 12 percent of the state's fledgling wolf population in just a few days.
Sadly it's another reminder that although we've come a long way in terms of tolerating predators like wolves and grizzly bears on our landscapes -- there's still much more to be done.
The situation with the Profanity Peak pack highlights much of what's wrong with how we manage conflicts between recovering wolf populations and livestock grazing. Rather than ensure ranchers are using proven non-lethal measures to the fullest extent to avoid losses, we instead blame wolves for doing what wolves have always done, namely preying on ungulates, and kill them whenever cattle are lost.
In the case of the Profanity Peak pack, the cows were being grazed on public lands in a high risk area, and few deterrence measures were being utilized. According to Dr. Robert Wielgus of the large carnivore lab at Washington State University, the rancher in question, Len McIrvin, refused to enter into a "cooperative damage prevention agreement" to work with state wolf researchers to avoid conflicts and was grazing his cows over a known den site, leading Dr. Wielgus to conclude in the Seattle Times that loss of cows was "predictable and avoidable."
Adding insult to injury, we've been here before. In 2012 the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the same agency currently targeting the Profanity Peak pack, killed seven members of the Wedge pack in response to cattle losses by the same rancher.
This highlights a fundamental problem with killing wolves to protect cows. If non-lethal measures are not used to reduce the risk of losing cattle in the first place, than the whole vicious cycle is likely to repeat itself once more wolves move back in. And what incentives do ranchers have to change their practices if the state comes in and kills wolves at taxpayer expense every time they start losing cows?
Earlier this year, the state agency did enact a protocol whereby it will not kill wolves until there has been loss or injury of four cows in a calendar year and unless the rancher who lost cattle is removing dead cows that may attract wolves to the area and carrying out at least one deterrence measure.
Although a step in the right direction, there are a number of problems with this approach. First and foremost, simply requiring a rancher to do any single measure fails to ensure that non-lethal deterrence measures that are likely to be effective are being utilized. Indeed, the one measure Mr. McIrvin apparently took was to delay release of cow calf pairs until the calves were big enough to hopefully avoid attracting wolves. After cows were already lost, he also apparently added a range rider to unsuccessfully deter further losses. Given that he was grazing his cows over a known den site, however, these measures had little chance of success.
A better approach and one utilized in Oregon is to require ranchers to work with the state to develop a conflict deterrence plan for the specific grazing allotment and enact measures with a high likelihood of success.
The second problem with the approach is that it fails to build in enough tolerance for minor losses of cattle to wolves. The approach of killing wolves in response to cattle losses is based on the fundamentally flawed idea that once wolves start preying on cows, they will switch to singularly focusing on them and the situation will quickly escalate, but this is often not the case.
In reality, wolves are a coursing predator that move through large territories searching for opportunities to take ungulate prey with little risk. If cattle overlap with their territory and the risk is low because of a lack of non-lethal deterrence, they will prey on them when they're in that portion of their territory, but then often move on.
We saw this at work in Oregon. In 2011, the Center for Biological Diversity and our allies stopped the state of Oregon from killing wolves in the Imnaha pack. The state insisted that the pack was chronically depredating cattle and that the situation would only get worse, but after we worked out a strong protocol with the state requiring tolerance of some cattle loss and utilization of non-lethal measures, only a small number of depredations occurred over the next several years and the pack stuck mostly to native prey.
Predators, including wolves, typically cause a small fraction of cattle losses with disease, accidents and even lightning causing many more deaths. In many cases, wolves with cattle in their territories may end up taking a couple cows in addition to native ungulates, but particularly if non-lethal deterrence measures are effectively used, such events will be infrequent and should be a normal part of ranching.
But by only requiring four injuries or losses in an entire year, which could happen in a single depredation event, Washington's protocol does not allow this process to play out before the state steps in and tragically starts killing wolves at taxpayer expense.
This is particularly problematic on public lands, where the American public has a right to expect that a beloved species like the wolf -- which was nearly wiped out for the benefit of ranchers but for which we have now expended substantial resources to recover -- will be treated with tolerance and respect. Instead, the state of Washington for the second time has stepped in to kill wolves for the benefit of a rancher who has shown considerable resistance to taking common sense measures to protect his cows on land we all own. This is a travesty and one that should not be allowed to occur again.