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Flora and Fauna | Environment

EarthFix Conversations: Why Washington Officials Killed An Endangered Wolf

This week Washington officials killed a female wolf from the Wedge Pack in the Northeastern part of the state. It’s the first time officials have intentionally killed a wolf. Wolves are on the state endangered species list.

EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn talked with Nate Pamplin, assistant director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

EarthFix: So tell me what happened. Tell me about the Wedge Pack.

Pamplin: This area, first off, is an area that is up in an area that we call the Wedge. It’s bounded by the Canadian border on the north, the Columbia and Kettle River. Going back even as far as 2007 we experienced our first confirmed wolf depredation at the Diamond M Ranch. Since then we’ve had ranchers in the area reporting some missing livestock and this spring we had an adjacent ranch have some wolf activity around their calving operation.

Then in mid-July we had a series of wolf depredation incidents where a calf was killed and several other cows and calves were injured and at that point we had ramped up our efforts, increased our presence. We ended up capturing the alpha male and fixing a satellite collar so we could start understanding the whereabouts of the pack and confirm the pack was in the area. And in addition we had caught a pup and placed a pup with an ear tag.

Then we had another incident on Thursday night and kind of, considering the building body of evidence with this pattern of depredation, we moved forward with considering lethal removal and that was done on Tuesday morning where we removed a non-breeding female member of the Wedge Pack.

EarthFix: And how did you decide on this female?

Pamplin: Our objective was to remove adult wolves that were not the alpha male and female and so that’s what we ended up removing.

EarthFix: Was there any way to say that she was the culprit, she was the one killing the livestock?

Pamplin: We cannot say for certain that that particular wolf caused the depredations but we know that that pack has been involved in those depredations so we were looking at reducing the pack size and trying to break up the pattern of depredation by conducting this operation.

EarthFix: So will there be other wolves from this pack that will be taken?

Pamplin: We had set out to remove up to two wolves initially and we just recently adopted our wolf conservation and management plan – essentially a recovery plan for wolves in the state of Washington – and in that plan in dealing with a progressive response for livestock depredations, once we move into considering lethal removal the plan prescribes looking at incremental removal of one or two animals and so we looked at removing two. We wanted to get the word out after the first removal. No further wolves were removed and at this point we’re going to be reevaluating our options and monitoring the situation for further depredations.

EarthFix: Do you think removing this female will solve the problem?

Pamplin: Well, when we consider the actions that we’ve tried to date, and looking at all the efforts in total we were not able to prevent a depredation that occurred. There is certainly no guarantee that the pack will stop depredating. But in an attempt to break up that pattern of depredation and reduce the size of the pack, this was deemed necessary.

wa wolf map
Wedge Pack is in NE Washington.

EarthFix: How many wolves are there in the Wedge Pack?

Pamplin: We don’t know the total number. There was, we thought, four adults: the alpha male and female and two non-breeding members and an undetermined number of pups.

EarthFix: And these wolves, the Wedge Pack, are not on the endangered species list, right? There’s a difference.

Pamplin: There’s a couple regulatory jurisdictions. Under the federal Endangered Species wolves are listed as endangered west of Highway 97 — so essentially the western two-thirds of the state. The eastern third of the state is considered part of the federally delisted portion of the northern Rocky Mountain distinct population segment of wolves so the state is on point for the management of wolves in the eastern third. Under state law wolves are listed as endangered. That was the premise behind developing the wolf conservation management plan — that essentially our recovery plan where we set recovery objectives across the state where we have 15 successful breeding pairs for three years distributed across three recovery regions.

Another way we could delist wolves is, if there’s 18 successful breeding pairs with a similar distribution throughout each of the three recovery zones observed even in one year, we could delist.

At this stage it’s under state law wolves are listed as endangered and this portion of the state under federal law wolves are delisted.

EarthFix: Ok, so how far are we from the 18 breeding pair number?

Pamplin: We’re quite a ways away. It’s important to share some perspective. Just last year we had five packs within the state and a pack is defined as two or more wolves running together. For recovery objectives the metric that’s used across all the states that are managing wolves is a successful breeding pair — that is, an adult pair of wolves that have successfully raised two pups through the end of the calendar year.

And so we do that assessment at the end of the calendar year, we go up and do an aerial survey of our packs to assess whether or not there’s pups present, and that counts toward the progress report, if you will, to assess where we’re at in achieving our recovery objectives.

So last year, for instance, of the five packs we had, three were considered successful breeding pairs. As part of our recovery objectives I’d mentioned about the need to have a geographic distribution so we have three recovery zones throughout the state – eastern Washington zone, a north Cascades zone and a southern Cascades that also includes Southwest and up into the Olympic Peninsula. And we need to have at least four successful breeding pairs in each of those zones. Currently we don’t have any packs in the south Cascades. We have two packs up in the north Cascades and the balance of our packs are in the eastern Washington recovery zone so we’re still a ways away from being able to consider a state delisting.

EarthFix: So how can you be recovering a population and killing them at the same time?

Pamplin: Well, I understand that that’s counter-intuitive at first glance. Wolves are – they’re habitat generalists; they’re prey generalists. And with the reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in the mid ‘90s wolf populations have been rebounding very well.

“There are wolves that end up getting into trouble and end up having negative interactions with livestock producers so as part of our goal for longterm persistence of having wolves on the landscape is also having that social tolerance and public acceptance that wolves are there and unfortunately when wolves are no longer responding to non-lethal measures, lethal measures do become necessary.

And that was an important part of our decision earlier this week of lethal removing up to two wolves in the Wedge Pack, was looking at the conservation status within that eastern Washington region. We have three packs in the north Cascades but nine packs within the eastern Washington recovery zone where the Wedge Pack is located. In addition the Wedge Pack is very close proximity to Idaho where there’s numerous wolves as well as British Columbia and so the balance of that information and the population persistence modeling we had done in the development of the wolf conservation and management plan demonstrated and supported that wolf lethal removal can be accomplished and does not inhibit population recovery.

EarthFix: Could you have just moved this female –- just put her elsewhere where the recovery’s not going as well?

Pamplin: That is something we’ve identified in the plan but in this scenario a couple things are at play. Number one is there are numerous areas within northeast Washington that have already been occupied by wolf packs and then in addition, moving wolves that are known livestock depredators would be a real challenge. This pack at this point in time would not be considered a candidate for moving within the recovery region.

EarthFix: But I mean, aren’t all wolves candidates for livestock depredation?

Pamplin: Not necessarily. There are numerous examples of wolves living in the vicinity of livestock that continue to focus on what I’ll call the naturally available prey – deer, elk and moose. In certain instances they focus in on livestock and once that happens it’s very difficult to modify that behavior.

Nate Pamplin is the assistant director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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