This summer our ranch experienced a crisis that is becoming all too common in Eastern Washington. Our sheep herd became the target of pack of wolves determined to kill and maim as many animals as possible despite our hardest efforts to prevent it.
Our usual everyday management included what a lot of people call “non-lethal deterrents” including a full time herder, four Marema/Akbash/Pyrenees cross guard dogs that live with the herd full time and rotating the sheep in their grazing area. But these actions did not prevent the wolves from attacking our sheep. Once the Huckleberry wolf pack began feeding on our band of sheep in early August, the killing was relentless with 2-3 animals lost every day. Once the killing started, we called on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to help and they provided the addition of four Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel stay with the sheep to try and increase human presence. We also allowed the department to provide a range rider to try and haze the wolves and allowed the Department to chronicle the wolf kills as they happened on nearly a daily basis. This experience has taught us two things: once wolves start killing livestock, no amount of effort can discourage them and don’t put too much trust in words.
Weighing how much words are worth is something I have gained more experience in over the last year in my participation in the WDFW Wolf Advisory Group (WAG). For the last year, I have served as a representative for the Cattle Producers of Washington on the WAG, oftentimes traveling to all-day meetings far from the ranch. The purpose of our committee was to help the Department find ways to prevent and address the kinds of wolf conflicts I am currently experiencing and we can see how well that worked. The WAG had long discussions about non-lethal methods, compensation, protocols for lethal removal, the monitoring and collaring of wolves and many other topics, but in the end all of the talk did very little to help a person in my situation.
In addition to being part of the WAG group, I am also one of a group of producers who have asked WDFW for wolf collar data so we can manage our herds. In our case we received no response and other producers were asked to sign a contract with certain non-lethal management rules first as some kind of test on whether they deserved the information or not. Being denied this basic tool directly caused the wolf conflict situation our ranch experienced, as we were unaware that we were moving our band of sheep near a wolf den site. Had we had access to the information, we would have made alternate grazing plans.
Words have also failed us because they aren’t always backed with action. We were told that four wolves from the Huckleberry pack would be removed, but as of last Friday, Aug. 22, the Department called off the helicopter team after only one wolf was removed and shortly after pulled the trappers as well. Our ranch was left and high and dry to try to try and handle the situation ourselves while at the same time having our hands tied due to the wolf’s state endangered species status.
With no other choice, we moved our sheep to a friend’s pasture on Sunday where they will be held until we can move them to a new grazing location far from our current site. Having to make this kind of change in the middle of the summer has caused considerable stress, expense and hardship to our operation. The grazing lease we had arranged with the private timber company was good until the middle of October and now we have to move our animals and try to find an alternate spot at the last minute.
Our animals are stressed, many are wounded and over 24 are confirmed as wolf killed. We had hoped to stay on the private leased ground, fulfill our contract, knock down the brush and weeds on the land to help manage it and move in the fall. Instead, we are being forced to leave early because WDFW will not follow through on their commitment to manage wolves and remove chronically depredating wolves. All the commitments from the Department meant nothing and again, words have failed us.
We don’t want to see this situation play out again on a different ranch in the county. The time for words is over, we need to see action. The Huckleberry wolf pack needs to be removed, not our sheep. By making us leave we are only passing the problem along to others in the area when the wolf finds their pets, animals and livestock.
I know from experience that continuing to talk about the wolf issue is futile. Our situation and others clearly shows that while non-lethal “deterrents” or management methods may work for a short amount of time, but they don’t work forever and once wolves start killing livestock, that behavior cannot be stopped.
Removing problem wolves is part of wolf management and this reality has been accepted by other states. Washington needs to accept this as well.If we allow people to be forced off the land, our economy and our communities will suffer greatly. We are asking our Stevens County Commissioners Steve Parker, Don Dashiell and Wes McCart, our Sheriff Kendle Allen, our County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen and our legislators Joel Kretz, Shelly Short and Brian Dansel to recognize that the time for words is over, the time for action is now.