As is usually the case, news of Washington wolves has also prompted local ranchers’ to kick up controversy and concern that their livelihood won’t be able to compete with these conditions of the natural world – on our public land. Recently, a dead cow was found near Twisp, Washington – and although wolves almost certainly had nothing to do with the kill, invariably – that’s where local media put the attention first.
What are managers doing to protect the Lookout wolf pack ?
The “Lookout pack” resides on the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest. These wolves migrated from Canada, they are not dispersers from Idaho. One (or more) Washington wolves has already been killed by a poacher, a local hobby rancher whose family was allegedly caught trying to ship the wolf hide to Canada for tanning into a rug – the mail was identified as suspicious when the wolf’s blood began leaking from the package in transit. That violation of the ESA is still “under investigation” by US Fish & Wildlife Service. Wolves in Washington are still protected under the Endangered Species Act, and are fully protected, not being subject to the 10(j) Rule that allowed for liberal killing of wolves in the Northern Rockies “Distinct Population”. Conviction of killing a fully protected endangered species (as are the wolves in Washington state) could result in a $100,000 fine.
While individuals may be prosecuted for illegal take of a fully federally protected Washington wolf after the fact, managers whose legal obligation it is to protect wolves and manage public land-use to avoid potential conflict remain largely unwilling to make meaningful changes in lieu of the altered circumstances given the Lookout pack’s recent presence on the landscape.
Despite the high potential for conflict, a fact that the Forest Service District Ranger in charge of the landscape admits, livestock are being allowed to graze as usual with little more than a heads-up to the permittees that wolves are out there. The Forest is using an ESA-mandated consultation letter signed in 1996 by the US Fish & Wildlife Service stating that grazing these allotments was not likely to affect wolves or grizzlies, presumably because at that time no wolves or grizzlies were believed to exist in the state.
Livestock have turned out onto these public lands roughly a mile from the Lookout pack’s den site on May 17 & 18 and another turnout is coming.
Don Johnson, an active Western Watersheds Project member, lives close to the pack and hiked the allotment to check things out :
There are concerns about the availability of both forage and water and the cows and calves I saw look like “bait” (at least some seem to be culls and on their last legs).
Weak calves turned out with marginal (at best) forage and inadequate water near a wolf den.
What’s particularly troubling is the fact that another permittee’s cattle are expected to turn-out, perhaps next week, onto a unit of the allotment where the most accessible source of water for cattle exists on the wolves’ rendezvous site.
The threat is that weak cattle & calves do not have enough food and water to maintain robust health – they shouldn’t be grazing there anyway. Wolves opportunistically prey, and once introduced to weak livestock it can lead to increased likelihood for further conflict within the pack’s range. Turning cattle out on these allotments, with these conditions, is tantamount to baiting the wolves.
Preventing conflict is in everyone’s interest – dead cattle leads to whining ranchers, grandstanding local politicians, and sympathetic reporters motivated to keep the ‘poor-rancher’ myth alive, regardless of whether any measures at all were taken to prevent the conflict on the rancher’s or manager’s part – that part never makes the story-line. Wolves end up taking the short-end of the stick no matter who’s at fault, and let’s be honest – it’s never the wolves’ fault.
Don expressed his frustration with the Forest’s response to his & WWP’s request that the Forest take action to mitigate the conflict. He put it right :
I believe the wolves deserve a future, but the USFS hasn’t done anything to date to assure that. We’ll see what they come up with in the next week. They should be taking the cows out of [there], but the permit allows them to stay until October.
Where it stands
Efforts have resulted in the Forest’s assurance that a new Biological Assessment will be conducted, but it is likely that this will bare little fruit on behalf of wolves. We’re getting the ‘bureaucratic side-step’ by US Fish & Wildlife managers who have a remarkably keen handle on bureaunese – that feel-good language of inaction and avoided commitment, delivered with remarkable listening skills and reassurances of care usually cut short by the inevitable need to make the next meeting. One officer at the Service said that since the wolves were from British Columbia, it’s likely they’ll be more interested in eating black tailed deer than cattle, so there is no reason to revisit whether grazing management is appropriate on the allotment. There aren’t any black tailed deer within hundreds of miles of the allotment.
Local conservation efforts have been largely permissive, which is nothing new – ulterior collaborative projects on the burner require buy-in from the local Livestock politicos precluding willingness to support (or even suggest) enforcement of existing protections on behalf of wolves. One prominent wolf advocacy group offered to pay the cost of the rancher’s feed until such time as the den site was cleared – that fell through when it was realized that the rancher who got the offer wasn’t to put out near the den site so early in the season, his cattle are headed for the Lookout pack’s rendezvous site. There is collaborative support for fencing off the den site, which will probably make a nice fundraiser and something for managers to put on paper to show they’re doing something – but I am unaware of why doing so would accomplish much more – the persisting problem is that livestock are set to congregate at the water source existing so near the wolves’ rendezvous site.
The opportunity exists in Washington state for managers to finally do the right thing – and by doing so, show the rest of the west what that looks like. These landscapes belong to all of us and we have already accomplished the political support to establish law that requires meaningful recovery of these wolves – i.e. the Endangered Species Act. But protections for wolves are only as strong as the managers’ and publics’ willingness to enforce them. Let’s be real – efforts to accomplish voluntary willingness from ranchers on public ground, to take responsible preventative measures *that work*, are largely anecdotal and rare – it’s not viable on a voluntary basis. If we’re not willing to take a popularity hit with our proverbial tenets (the public land ranchers that lease our land) to insist upon the reasonable measures that we know work, why should we expect that those measures will happen ? We are the land-lords of our children’s commonly held natural heritage, it is our responsibility to insist on setting reasonable, clear boundaries and conditions for commercial use of our lands that we know work to best protect our asset, that reasonably protect wolves. Public management decisions are where the conflict is originating – managers unwillingness to act – and that is where the best, most reasonable place for responsible people to prevent conflict with wolves is at as well.
The Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest should not allow livestock to graze the unit of this Forest allotment on which the sole wolf pack in Washington has a rendezvous site that coincides with livestock’s mostly likely site of congregation.