A major part of my role at Conservation Northwest is to communicate about our different conservation programs, including our work for Cascades grizzly bear recovery, wolverines, Canada lynx, elk, mule deer and habitat connectivity. But in the world of conservation, few things are as talked about or as contentious as the recovery of wolves in the American West.
Conservation Northwest takes somewhat of a middle path when it comes to wolf recovery; working with, not against, ranchers, farmers and hunters whenever we can, and supporting the lethal removal of problem wolves when such an act is recommended by sound science and preceded by thorough conflict avoidance efforts. But we are a wildlife conservation group, and we fully support natural wolf recovery.
Your’s truly hunting mule deer in an area near the territory of several wolf packs. Photo: Chase Gunnell.
In contrast to many national wildlife organizations, one of Conservation Northwest’s biggest strengths is that we are on-the-ground, with staff working directly in the communities most impacted by Northwest wolf recovery. This local presence in places like Twisp, Omak and Colville provides the advantage of working collaboratively to address the things residents in wolf country are concerned about, from livestock depredations to grazing access to impacts on prey populations to poaching. In our view, to be successful wolf recovery needs to work for people, too.
Whether you support or oppose these keystone predators returning to the Northwest, the fact is they aren’t going away now. They’re returning to Washington naturally from populations in B.C., Idaho and NW Montana, they pose very little threat to humans (certainly less than bears or cougars), they are vital for healthy wild ecosystems, and they have just as much a right to be a part of our landscapes as deer, elk or any other native species.
That being said, wolves are a species that can and does cause problems. And they should be managed accordingly.
Riding along on a livestock survey in the Methow Valley, home to the Lookout Pack. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Wolves aren’t wolverines, bound to alpine wilderness areas. From what I’ve learned from experts in the field, and the tracks I’ve seen first hand, they love to travel on Forest Service roads, ATV tracks and human trails. Most prey species don’t spend their winters in craggy, unpopulated highlands, and neither do wolves. Much like the deer and elk on which they feed, their territory overlaps with developed areas, ranch lands and private property. And though attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, wolves are known to be aggressive towards dogs, and anyone traveling in wolf country should plan to take many of the same precautions they usually would for bears, including carrying bear spray.
In the majority of cases wolves or wolf packs will stick to natural prey, but if livestock grazing in wolf territory aren’t supervised, they can become an easy meal. And though Conservation Northwest directly supports predator conflict avoidance measures such as range riders, fladry and guard dogs that are proven to be effective, we’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t a cure-all for every circumstance.
Hanging fladry to deter wolves from entering a calving pasture within the range of the Teanaway Pack. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Like the dogs they are, wolves can reproduce at impressive rates. Though wolf packs and overall populations do self-regulate based on prey and territory availability (through repressed reproduction and lethal conflict between wolf packs and individuals), an overabundant wolf population does have the potential to cause real negative impacts on healthy deer, elk and moose populations. Particularly when they overlap with high populations of other predators such as cougars.
But while excess predation is a real concern, there’s been no scientific findings that this has yet occurred in the Northwest. Though some parts of Washington might appear to be packed with wolves when you look at the state’s pack map (sorry, northeast corner. I’d support wolf translocation), with only 52 confirmed wolves and a total population of likely less than 100 statewide, Washington state is far from its recovery goals and nowhere near an overabundant wolf population. In areas of the Rocky Mountains with significantly higher wolf populations there have been localized population impacts (including some changes in elk numbers towards healthier levels) and more generalized changes in prey behavior and movement, but still overall deer and elk hunter success has not been reduced.
Bull moose in north central Washington. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Hunting and killing something I can’t eat has little appeal to me personally. But still I believe that once scientifically sound wolf recovery goals are met and Endangered Species delisting has occurred, states should take reasonable steps to manage wolf populations if necessary to prevent overabundance. Just like we do with so many other species, from deer to cougars to coyotes.
What those steps should be (regulated public hunting seasons vs. government predator control agents) is a debate for another day. But whatever the methods, wildlife managers need to take into account the social nature of these iconic creatures, and the evidence that disrupting pack stability by killing key wolves may actually increase breeding activity and as well as conflicts with livestock.
When it comes down to it, the realities of wolf recovery aren’t nearly as black and white as extremists on either side of the debate might like to believe. These gray wolves are not non-native Canadian killing machines, or the tools of some conspiracy to kick working people off the land and end hunting by decimating game populations. Nor are they a fantastical anthropomorphic “spirit animal” that deserves unlimited reverence and protection.
Wolves are truly neat creatures, deserving of the same respect and stewardship we give other native wildlife species. They are complicated animals in complicated (and often damaged) ecosystems whose preferred range regularly overlaps with our own. And by working together across dividing lines, it is possible to make their recovery work for wolves, other wildlife species and people too.
In that spirit of responsible, collaborative wolf recovery, over the summer I had the chance to lace up my boots, pack up my deer camp kit (sans 30.06) and head out to the range to experience a bit of on-the-ground wolf management. Below is the account (and a video of howling with wolves) that I penned after our range riding trip.
RANGE RIDING AND HOWLING WITH WASHINGTON WOLVES
This past August, Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest Okanogan County outreach associate, got a call from one of our ranching partners whose family grazes over two hundred head of cattle on an allotment in the Colville National Forest, within the territory of one of Washington’s wolf packs.
With funding help from Conservation Northwest and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), these ranchers have been using diligent range riding and other non-lethal conflict avoidance methods in this area for several years. The program has been a great success, and since the range rider has been in place the herd has experienced no confirmed depredations from wolves or other predators.
But this year, the wolf pack had chosen a rendezvous site for its adolescent pups very near where the ranchers were moving their herd in preparation for bringing them in for the season. The ranchers and range rider had been supervising the herd around the clock, and no conflicts had yet occurred, but they were rightfully nervous about the wolves’ new location.
As partners in wolf-livestock conflict prevention, the ranchers wondered if Jay and some Conservation Northwest staff could come out for a few days to give the range rider a rest and provide some extra eyes on the situation.
In addition to new knowledge about ranching and wolves, Chase came back from the range riding trip with this neat video of using howls as a tool to locate the wolf pack, and make sure they were separated from the rancher’s livestock. Video: Chase Gunnell
Heading out to lend a hand
Happy to do what we could to help, Jay rallied myself, conservation associate Alison Huyett, and an experienced volunteer to come lend a hand.
We packed our tents, binoculars, boots and bear spray, and headed out to remote northeast Washington to see if we could help keep our partners’ cows and the wolf pack from getting into trouble. For me, it felt like packing and heading off for hunting season two months early, but this time toting a camera and airhorn instead of a deer rifle.
After getting the lay of the land and some training from the rancher on working around cows and calves, we began patrolling the area. Driving rough Forest Service roads and hiking brushy game trails, we were out until dark monitoring for injured, sick or separated livestock.
At the same time, we also provided an extra level of human presence to help deter the wolves from thinking that the valuable cows and calves might be unprotected prey.
An injured cow we found with her young calf. The ranchers quickly brought this pair down, placing them in a protected corral until the cow’s limp had healed. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Using the range rider’s knowledge, and if they were available, howling, scat and tracks, we also tried to keep tabs on the location of the wolf pack. And when our pre-dawn coffee was interrupted by a chorus of barks and howls that sent the cows running, we split up and headed into the thick timber.
Our goal was to use human presence and noisemakers to push the wolves away from the core of the grazing allotment, and towards a nearby roadless area. Hopefully it was a move that would protect both the cows and the wolf pack from potentially lethal trouble.
While other members of our team began hiking up the valley bottom where the wolves and the main group of cows and calves were located, the rancher dropped Jay and I off at points on the ridge above. With luck, our locations would prevent the pack from doubling back towards another group of cows we had located in a meadow the evening before.
As I moved carefully (and loudly) downslope, the howls and barks coming from in front of me began to move off up the ridge to my right. Sure enough, with a few more howls from the mother wolf telling her “teenage” pups to come along, the pack took off. It wasn’t the exact location we’d been hoping they would go, but it was away from the cows and deeper into the woods.
At least for the time being, the pack had moved on.
Fresh wolf scat found during our patrols. Range riders regularly check wolf scat to make sure it doesn’t contain cow hair, which might alert them to a depredation. This scat is full of deer hair. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Learning to coexist on the range
We later learned that the wolves did eventually return to their rendezvous site. But as the herds come home for the season, the ranchers are reporting no cows or calves lost to predators. It seems that thorough range riding, smart livestock management, and maybe even the extra boost from our Conservation Northwest team helped keep things free from conflict.
And despite their close proximity to cattle much of the summer, the wolf pack has so far been content to leave livestock alone. If their scat is any indication, they’ve been feeding on the healthy populations of elk, white-tailed deer, moose and wild turkeys found in the area. Many of which we saw during our trip, not to mention a big black bear!
For our team, it was a hands-on experience of just how range riding actually works. We talk about this program regularly and support the work of these modern-day cowboys and cowgirls through funding, expert training and other resources. But for me, it was my first experience actually stepping into the boots of a range rider in wolf country.
Ranchers and their herding dog rounding up the cattle. If grazing is rotated and managed responsibly, open areas like this meadow can provide defensible space for the cows and calves. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Beyond seeing firsthand the real challenges that ranchers in wolf country face, and how having a good cowboy can help prevent conflicts between predators and livestock before they even begin, I came away with renewed admiration for both wolves and cattlemen.
This was a hardworking family making a living in a wild place, and they don’t want to lose their livestock or their way of life. But they also have a sincere desire to use responsible grazing strategies and predator conflict avoidance methods to leave that wild place better than they found it. They held high respect for the land and for their new toothy neighbors, understanding that wolves are a natural part of where they’ve chosen to live and work. And that just killing them was neither an ethical or effective option for stopping potential problems.
More than just memories and pride from helping our ranching partners, our team also brought back practical experience and first-hand knowledge that will help guide our range riding program, and my communications, well into the future.
Despite the wolf-livestock conflicts publicized so much in the Northwest media recently, and the supercharged opinions on both sides of the wolf debate, after our trip this summer I’m as confident as ever that hardworking people collaborating with respect can make wolf recovery a success. And that Washington can still be a state where native predators returning to the landscape works in the long run for wolves, wildlife and people, too.
On-the-ground collaborations with our ranching partners in Eastern Washington are proving that this goal is achievable.