Gray wolves are back, gliding through the forests of eastern Washington and the Cascades. The Lookout pack is producing pups in the Methow Valley, near Twisp. Seven wolves, an alpha male and female, a yearling and last year's four pups, have been traveling through 350 square miles, eating black-tailed and mule deer primarily, but also munching the occasional muskrat or beaver. Last year, on the banks of the Twisp River, they were seen eating salmon.
The Diamond pack is roaming the northeastern corner of the state, where grizzly bears and mountain caribou also wander down into the Salmo-Priest wilderness. There seem to be wolves in the southeastern corner, across the border from the two packs that have been identified in Oregon's Wallowa Mountain and Hell's Canyon area. Other wolves have been sighted in Mount Rainier National Park, although no one knows whether or not they're hybrids.
Wolves hold a very special badass image in European language and myth. They are seen as voracious (“wolfing down” one's food); unusually predatory (a "wolf whistle" directed at a pretty woman); a metaphor for human aggression (“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.").
In the West, they have been seen primarily as competition. By running herds of succulent sheep and cattle among the hills and valleys, we have in effect spread a perpetual banquet — and we don't want anyone but ourselves to partake. If anybody else bellies up to the table, he's likely to get shot.
Wolves have been shot and poisoned throughout the West. They are fecund and resilient, but not the way coyotes are. People's attempts to get rid of coyotes have been about as successful as their attempts to get rid of Norway rats. But the final solution largely succeeded with wolves. They were history in Washington by the end of the 1930s. And some of the old anti-predator instincts are alive and well. In a case that hit the press last year, two Twisp ranchers, father and son, may face federal charges for allegedly killing an endangered species and trying to smuggle the hide out of the country. "The investigation began on Dec. 23, 2008," Joyce Campbell described in the Methow Valley News, "when an Omak police officer and a state wildlife agent responded to a complaint from the owner of an Omak FedEx shipping outlet that a package was leaking what appeared to be blood."
There's an image for you. The story continues: a Washingon Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer named Brent Scherzinger "examined the package contents and 'determined it was probably a freshly killed wolf hide,' according to the court document. The shipping label was addressed to an Alberta, Canada, residence. The shipper had declared the item was a rug." And no doubt it would have become one. The U.S. Attorney's office tried to keep the whole thing quiet, but Conservation Northwest figured people should know about it, and made it very public.
Not surprisingly, the gray wolf was a charter member of the federal endangered species list. It was listed by the federal government in 1974, by Washington in 1980. Last year, the feds famously delisted wolves in the northern Rockies, including Montana and Idaho, both of which promptly opened hunting seasons for them.
In much of Washington, the delisting followed north-south Highway 97. The Lookout pack, some 30 miles west of the highway, is still listed. The Diamond pack, farther east, is not.
A coalition of national and regional conservation groups has asked a federal court to vacate the delisting rule and tried and failed to get the court to enjoin the hunts. The judge said the conservationists hadnt proved that a single year of hunting part of the population would cause irreparable harm to the population as a whole. On the other hand, he said that the Endangered Species Act didn't authorize de-listing just part of the population.
Actually, the government had tried to delist all western wolf populations the year before. All of the three main western wolf states, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, had drawn up management plans. Wyoming's was clearly inadequate. The conservationists got an injunction against delisting, and rather than have to defend the indefensible at trial, the government asked for and got a voluntary remand to revise the proposal. When the feds tried again last year, they left Wyoming's wolf population on the list. This decision had clearly owed a lot more to politics than to science. The judge said last year the plaintiffs had demonstrated that they would probably prevail on the merits of the case. Stay tuned.
Part of the rationale for delisting and hunting wolves in Idaho and Montana had been that the gray predators threatened livestock and wild ungulate populations (deer and elk, for example) in both states. But the plaintiffs pointed out in their brief that rules under the Endangered Species Act had permitted harassing, removing, or even killing wolves that attacked or threatened livestock, or that threatened the survival of ungulate populations. An estimated 8 to 14 percent of the wolf population had been culled every year for these reasons.
In addition, virtually all ungulate populations had equalled or exceeded management targets, so the wolves were hardly pushing them into extinction. (Not that this fact mollified some hunters, who resent sharing their own prey with the wolves, and who would rather not have "wild" deer and elk spooked away from easily accessible road corridors.) And the numbers were hardly overwhelming. In 2008, Defenders of Wildlife, which for years has paid ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, paid for 133 dead critters. That's hardly a bovine holocaust.
Have the Methow's newly arrived wolves been chowing down on livestock? Evidently not. A rancher reported seeing wolves devouring a single dead steer there, but by the time people examined the carcass, it was way too old for anyone to tell what had killed it. By and large, the Lookout pack seems to prefer venison. "These wolves have been in and around cattle quite a bit," Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin says. "If cattle were really on their menu," there'd be a lot more conflict.
Elsewhere, the casualty list has been longer. Writing in National Geographic, Douglas Chadwick reports estimates of 569 sheep and cattle killed last year; notes that if you don't find the carcass quickly, scavengers may destroy the evidence; and explains that wolves change livestock behavior. Looking over their shoulders for predators, cattle and sheep eat less than they otherwise would; they also feel increased stress, which raises the likelihood of stillborn calves.
Conservation Northwest executive director Mitch Friedman, who has worked hard to get wolves accepted in Washington state, suggests that these behavioral changes are the real issue. Just paying ranchers for confirmed wolf kills won't solve the problem. Perhaps, Friedman suggests, ranchers should be compensated not only for the loss of animals, but also for lack of weight gain.
On the other hand, he wonders, if you're going to look at the situation comprehensively, "how do you factor in that the presence of wolves means less predation and harassment by coyotes?" And then one can get into philosophical questions: "We don't get compensated for the weather," Friedman notes. "Are wolves any less natural than weather? It's a really slippery slope."
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