The Wolves of Washington

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Image: Zweer de Bruin

Wolves rarely attack humans, but the animals have a tremendous power to inspire real fear in people. In fairy tales and legends across cultures, wolves are routinely cast as trickster figures–deceitful and dangerous.  Occasionally in these stories a wolf does actually eat someone, as in the original version of Little Red Riding Hood.  In the Bible, a verse from Matthew calls false prophets “ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  Wolves, put simply, are vested with quite a bit of emotional baggage. 

The gray wolf’s territory once covered a large swath of North America, stretching from the arctic tundra to Mexico.  In the 19th and 20th century, they were hunted nearly to extinction in most of the United States, “pursued with more passion and determination than any other animal in U.S. history,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In the 1990s, the federal government decided to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park in an effort to help their population rebound in the Western United States.  While the move ignited controversy, the wolves also caused what ecologists call a trophic cascade of benefits in their former territory. 

Wolves are a keystone species because they have the ability to shape and redefine a given territory.  By reducing the numbers of elk, deer, and other ungulates, wolves allow trees to grow taller and forests to grow fuller. This in turn can allow animals like beavers to create more wetlands.  The effects are complicated and interdependent on any number of local factors, but ultimately scientific research strongly suggests that a stable population of wolves can increase an ecosystem’s resilience and biodiversity. 

As a result, wolves have developed a devoted base of support among some ecologists, environmentalists, and conservationists. I met a few of Washington’s wolf-advocates years ago at a political fundraiser. Recently, after reading a piece in the New Yorker about wolf-hunting in Idaho, I decided to reach out to a few of them to talk more about Washington state’s efforts to promote wolf recovery while simultaneously protecting the cattle industry – a tightrope walk of a policy that invites accusations of playing both arsonist and firefighter.   

Last year was a particularly good time to be a wolf who happened to be living in Washington. The state became an unexpected safe haven for the animals when President Trump lifted federal protections for gray wolves near the end of his term in October of 2020.  This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Wolves have been on and off the list over the last several decades, and the population was deemed stable enough in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana that those states were granted the right to manage their own wolf populations nearly a decade ago, regardless of the species’ status at the federal level.  

Still, Trump’s actions reignited a fervor for killing wolves, tapping something deeper than public policy. Western states moved quickly to loosen restrictions they had in place around wolf-hunting. Idaho and Montana moved quickly, clearing the way for hunters to kill up to 90 percent of each state’s wolf population. Harkening back to the 19t century, Montana officials also brought back the practice of paying hunters to kill wolves by allowing private organizations to offer rewards for pelts.  Legislatures moved to allow all manner of unethical tools and methods including shooting from helicopters, using night vision goggles, poison gas, and neck snare traps.  

Hunters in Idaho were even given the go-ahead to kill wolf pups in their dens, an option that left some hunters decidedly conflicted.  The same passion that drove wolves nearly to extinction in the U.S. 70 years ago roared back to the forefront.  As Lisa Remlinger, the former policy director at the Washington Environmental Council, told me, “We don’t treat any other animal the way we treat wolves.”

Because Governor Jay Inslee refused to go along with Trump’s decision and essentially kept existing protections in place, Washington bucked the trend. Hunting wolves in the Evergreen State remained illegal.  

Largely as a result of Inslee’s leadership and staunch efforts by stakeholders in the conservation and environmental movement, as well as a ranchers’ willingness to negotiate and compromise, Washington has arguably become the most effective state in the West when it comes to managing wolves. That’s according to research conducted by Conservation Northwest, an advocacy group based in Seattle that has worked diligently to protect the state’s wolf packs, ever since wolves officially returned to our state in 2008.

Over the last five years, wildlife officials in other Western states have killed (or “lethally controlled” as the professional jargon has it) between 25 and 35 percent of their wolf populations annually.  In that same period, Washington state maintained an annual average kill rate of just 3.8 percent of the state’s wolves, and the population has grown at a stable clip, with a marked increase last year, from 178 wolves to 216, across 33 packs.  The current packs are distributed at uneven intervals from the North Cascades to the southeast corner of the state, on the border with Oregon.  

To understand why and how Washington’s wolf management tactics are so different from – and so much more effective than other states – requires a brief look at the recent history of wolves in Washington. Fourteen years ago, for the first time in decades, a wolf pack settled in Washington. Christened the Lookout Pack, these wolves settled in the Methow Valley, some 200 miles from Seattle. 

While many progressives on the western side of the state celebrated their arrival as a restoration of Washington’s natural heritage, a few ranchers immediately began poaching wolves from the Lookout Pack.  More packs were soon discovered, and as the state’s wolf population grew, so too did cattle-depredation events, raising the anger among wildlife-advocates and ranchers.

In an attempt to defuse the conflict, Conservation Northwest launched a range riding pilot program in 2010. The group sent people, often on horseback for days at a time, to monitor cattle through the grazing season—roughly May through October or early November.  

Daniel Curry, one of Conservation Northwest’s longtime range riders, explained the art and science of his work to me in a recent conversation. Range riding is based on the working theory, backed by scientific research, that wolves can learn to avoid livestock, and that senior female wolves in a pack will pass that learned behavior to their young, teaching their pups to avoid livestock as well. 

The thesis is that the entire pack will eventually decide to forgo sheep and cattle entirely, sticking to their traditional prey, other wild animals. The results can be downright beautiful, according to Curry: “I’ve seen cattle grazing and seen wolves run right through,” not even pausing to look at the cows. He hopes scenes like that will continue to convince ranchers that range riding is an effective, worthwhile investment.  

Getting to the point where ranchers would hire range riders took years of work. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife set up a wolf advisory group in 2013. Environmentalists and ranchers worked together to create a protocol governing how and when the state would remove wolves involved in cattle depredation incidents.  But, after the state killed every single wolf in the Profanity Peak pack of the Kettle river range in Northeast Washington in 2014, the group effectively stopped working together for a time.  

Discussing the breakdown in communication Diane Gallegos, the executive director at Wolf Haven, a wildlife sanctuary near Olympia, explained, “We just didn’t have the tools to work with stakeholders who had been dehumanized in each other’s eyes for several years.  It was hard for us to even sit in a room together.” In an attempt to bring the group back together, the state brought in a wildlife conflict specialist from D.C.  She led members of the WAG and other stakeholders through a reconciliation process. 

Gallegos spoke highly of the experience, saying that “the conflict transformed into genuine positive relationships with one another, as we looked at the broader goals we all agreed to.” She called it “the most amazing experience I have ever seen.” As a result, in 2016, the group was able to unanimously approve a new protocol, one that mandated range riding in addition to a number of other non-lethal measures ranchers are required to take in order to safeguard their cattle, before they ask the state to remove a problematic wolf.  

That’s not to say Washington has found a perfect solution to managing wolves, but the approach is working relatively well.  Paula Swedeen, Conservation Northwest’s policy director, explained that keeping wolves and cattle separate is never going to be an exact science. “It’s a continued logistical challenge to try to figure out how to get enough people in the right place, at the right time, for the right amount of time,” she said.  Federal grazing lands leave a lot of ground to cover, and it’s difficult to know exactly where and when problems will crop up. 

It’s become even more of a challenge in recent years, though it’s a welcome one, because the program is growing in popularity. In a major marker of progress, range riding programs run by the state and by Conservation Northwest have been fully subscribed for the last couple of years. Ranchers who were taught from a young age that the only good wolf is a dead one are now willing to make an effort to effectively protect the predators.

It’s a major change. Even if some ranchers would still prefer to call upon traditional, harsher measures, more and more are coming to accept, and maybe even to appreciate, that wolves are going to remain part of Washington’s landscape.  

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Jim Mumford has worked in state and national political campaigns for the last several years, most recently on Governor Jay Inslee's presidential run, and his 2020 re-election campaign here in Washington.

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