There were about 90 endangered gray wolves in Washington state earlier this summer, but that number is set to decline by 11 after cattle belonging to a rancher in northeastern Washington were recently killed near the den of the Profanity Peak wolf pack in the Colville National Forest.
To resolve the issue the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking to the air to kill the pack of 11. As of last week at least six wolves in the pack had been shot and killed from a helicopter, according to advisories from the WDFW.
The incident is the second involving the Stevens County rancher, Len McIrvin, who several years ago also suffered livestock losses from the Wedge wolf pack, which was eventually killed by the state as well.
"The facts are this is the second wolf pack he is having eradicated," said Robert Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University.
Wielgus said the livestock losses and the killing of one of the state's 19 recognized wolf packs could have been avoided.
He said while many ranchers opt to sign a cooperative damage prevention agreement to work with state wolf researchers, McIrvin chose not to, despite being approached by Wielgus to do so on multiple occasions.
Wielgus said those agreements help provide ranchers with information on the location on wolves and their dens so they can better protect their cattle from predation.
He said ranchers who have decided to work with him haven't lost livestock to wolves.
Wielgus said when cattle began to graze near the den the wolves' native prey of deer were pushed away, and the wolves began to prey on the most populous food source around - McIrvin's cattle.
Some say the rancher relocated his cattle near the den on purpose, as a way to have the endangered species wiped out from his family's longtime grazing ranges. As per state law, ranchers who lose livestock to wolves also receive financial reimbursement.
"It's literally a war on wildlife and it's a situation that could have been easily avoided," said Brooks Fahy, executive director for the national wildlife advocacy organization Predator Defense. "The rancher was looking for a showdown - he got what he wanted. These animals were dumped knowingly right on top of the core of (wolf) territory. It'd be like someone coming into your home and dropping a bunch of aliens off in your home."
"There could be a wolf den in the pasture, but the idea the producer willingly drove their cattle on it, I don't know anyone that would drive their cattle into harms way," said Jack Field, Washington Cattlemen's Association executive vice president. "It's very frustrating to think that that is getting a lot of play."
Field said it's important to realize the pastures are very large and feature steep terrain, both of which can make it difficult to identify a wolf den.
"It's almost a crime," he said. "It takes all the context out. I can tell you it's tough country, steep terrain, a lot of brush. My only concern is we're not giving a fair shake to what that landscape really looks like."
While Field noted the family has been having the animals graze in the same ranges on national forest land for many decades, Fahy said it's the wolves that are in their natural habitat.
"Nonnative cows are displacing elk, deer, ruining streams - they are wreaking havoc. They are large non-native exotic herbivores," Fahy said. "He doesn't own this land - the American public owns this land."
Fahy said he doesn't know what the rancher pays to graze in the national forest, but he estimated it's far lower than the roughly $80,000 it cost taxpayers to kill the Wedge wolf pack a few years back.
Donny Martorello, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf-policy lead, could not be reached Monday despite multiple phone calls from the Daily News. McIrvin also could not be reached.
Josh Babcock can be reached at (208) 883-4630, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.