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Photo Four wolves walk through the woods of North Idaho near the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River on March 5, 2012. (Randy Krum / Courtesy)
By Rich Landers
A fifth-generation cattleman and a wildlife biologist are teaming to help northeastern Washington ranchers coexist with the state’s growing number of gray wolves.
Stemming from their boots-on-the ground experience with wolf-livestock conflicts, Arron Scotten and Jay Shepherd have formed the nonprofit Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative.
They plan to use funding from state and other sources to provide more nonlethal wolf attack deterrents in the region where 16 of the state’s 22 identified packs reside.
Both men have roots in the agricultural community and have worked with existing state and private programs related to wolf conflicts.
Shepherd, a wildlife biologist with a Ph.D in natural resources, lives in Chewelah. He grew up on his family’s Walla Walla-area wheat and cattle farm. Scotten is a former rodeo athlete who returned to family ranch land north of Kettle Falls after serving 20 years in the Navy.
“Wolves add a new cost to cattle operations that are part of the culture up here,” Shepherd said. “We want to provide more access to nonlethal depredation deterrents.
“The situation with wolves is dynamic. No one knows where the next problem will occur. We might be more flexible than the state to move quickly where there’s a need.”
The effort includes training and hiring range riders and building a cache of deterrence kits – flashing lights, special electric fencing, solar chargers, trail cameras, air horns and other items – that can be delivered quickly to operations where wolf activity steps up.
Shepherd also is developing a checklist of factors for a risk assessment model that will help prioritize assistance.
Relieving the burden on ranchers to cope with wolves, they say, will lead to more social acceptance of the apex predators that have been recolonizing Washington in the past decade under state and federal endangered species protections.
Wolves were extirpated from Washington through an predator-averse era of shooting, trapping and poisoning by the 1930s. The gray wolf was federally listed as an endangered species in 1973. In 2008, Washington documented its first breeding wolf pack in roughly 70 years as the carnivores began naturally dispersing back into the state from Canada, Idaho and, later, Oregon.
Despite documented losses of roughly a dozen wolves a year from selective state-authorized lethal control, plus poaching, vehicle collisions and other human-related causes, Washington’s wolf population has steadily grown each year. A minimum of 122 wolves, 22 packs and 14 successful breeding pairs was reported by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department (WDFW) this winter.
And the 2018 denning season is underway.
“Since last spring, Jay an I have been working on our own dime to see what’s needed,” said Scotten, who has worked as a range rider for the Diamond M Ranch. The ranch’s private lands and Colville National Forest grazing allotments have been the scene of several state-authorized lethal wolf control actions since 2012.
“We’ve interviewed a lot of ranchers, sat down with the Forest Service and tried to figure out where they want the extra effort on grazing allotments and calving operations, Scotten said. “We’ve made presentations to cattlemen’s associations and conservation districts. We’ve been to Montana to see how things are working there.”
The 2017 Washington Legislature approved $300,000 for grants to assist in nonlethal methods of deterring pervasive wolf attacks in Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Of seven applications, five were funded for the next two years, with the collaborative receiving the highest amount, $185,493.
Four individual ranches received the other grants for range riders, special fencing or other deterrents. Vic Stokes of Okanogan County explained that a wolf pack has been documented near his ranch so he’s using an $11,242 grant to install electric fence around a calving area.
No wolf attacks have been noted on his cattle, and Stokes says he wants to keep it that way. Being in the western two-thirds of Washington where wolves are still federally protected, lethal action would not be an option should attacks occur.
Authorized lethal control is allowed in the eastern third of the state where wolves are protected by state endangered species rules.
In 2017, nearly 100 Washington ranchers had signed agreements for deterrent measures with help from state agencies or private groups. Nevertheless, WDFW dispatched three wolves to stop repeated attacks on cattle last year where deterrents were being employed, and ranchers legally killed two other wolves caught in the act of attacking livestock.
Five of the 22 packs recognized in Washington at some point during 2017 were involved in at least one livestock mortality.
Without deterrents, more conflicts likely would have occurred, Shepherd said.
Conservation Northwest, under Shepherd’s guidance, provided $50,000 in direct funding for range riders, guard dogs, fencing, flashing lights, moving sick and injured livestock out of summer grazing allotments and other options and worked with seven ranchers in the territories of five wolf packs. These range riders alone last year oversaw approximately 280,000 acres and 3,000 cattle from northeast Washington’s Smackout Pack and the Nc’icn and Strawberry packs on the Colville Indian Reservation to the Teanaway Pack near Cle Elum and the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley.
“The collaborative is a separate program,” Shepherd said.
Two years ago, the Washington Legislature appropriated $600,000 for range riding and other wolf-conflict preventive measures managed by WDFW. Starting this biennium, that amount has been split between the Fish and Wildlife Department’s ongoing programs and the new grants administrated by the state Agriculture Department.
WDFW also received a one-time $100,000 appropriation to maintain obligations in the transition, said Joey McCanna, the agency’s private lands and wildlife conflict supervisor. State cost-sharing contributions also are available in part from vanity vehicle license plate sales to fund predator conflict avoidance efforts.
Shepherd and Scotten say the collaborative will be coordinating with Conservation Northwest and WDFW, which administers 50 percent cost-sharing agreements for deterrence throughout Eastern Washington where wolves and livestock overlap.
“We’ll be meeting with Jay and Arron next month to look at maps, grazing allotments and wolf pack territories so we can coordinate and avoid sending our range riders to the same places,” McCanna said.
Dave Hedrick, of Ferry County, was among the conservation district board members from the four northeast counties to distribute the $300,000 in grants from the Agriculture Department.
“The legislation was aimed at empowering local ranchers,” he said. “They have knowledge of their operations and ideas of what would work for them.
“The money is being routed through Ag to get around the significant trust issue between ranchers in northeastern Washington and WDFW. This puts more emphasis on ranchers to solve their own problems with people they prefer to work with.”
Eventually, WDFW likely will seek to have funding and livestock protection efforts shifted entirely to the state Agriculture Department, McCanna said.
“Jay and Arron are trying to provide resources to ranchers and range riders, similar to what WDFW is trying to do but with more local credibility and trust,” Hedrick said.
“It’s absolutely worth a shot.”
Hedrick said his main concern is that the collaborative will be spread too thin. “It’s important for them to be successful, but there’s more demand for their services than there is money,” he said. “This is the beginning stages of what ranchers will need to move forward.”
The cost of hiring a full-time range rider to monitor cattle from June through October is about $20,000, McCanna said.
“You need people on the ground,” Scotten said. “Past emphasis on monitoring wolves with GPS collars tends to leave a false sense of security. You have to be out there watching cattle behavior and looking for sign that indicates an increase in wolf activity.”
Colville National Forest grazing allotments range from 8,000 to 59,000 acres. “But if it’s in the primary territory of a large pack, even a couple thousand acres is a struggle to defend,” Shepherd said.
Some wolf advocacy groups have suggested that predator-livestock conflicts and especially lethal control of wolves would be virtually unnecessary if grazing could be curtailed on national forest lands.
“Trouble is,” Scotten said, “you can’t throw a rock in northeastern Washington that won’t land in the territory of a wolf pack. Private lands are affected, too. People who don’t live and work here aren’t affected by wolf recovery. We are.”
“We’re trying to avoid putting ranchers on the brink of going out of business as well as avoiding the backlash when wolves are removed,” Shepherd said, referring to legal action by pro-wolf groups. “When dead cattle or dead wolves are on the ground, either way, it’s a social mess.”