Profanity gets the best and worst of me

August 31, 2016 Chase Gunnell

We're working towards long-term wolf recovery and coexistence. While the loss of some wolves to conflict can be heart-wrenching, unfortunately it's sometimes an unavoidable component of predators, people and livestock sharing space.

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

Profanity gets the best and worst of me. Profanity Peak is the namesake for the rugged and scenic Profanity Roadless Area, the heart of the Columbia Highlands and the Cascades to Rockies habitat corridor. It’s the wild crest of the Kettle River Mountain Range that conservationists have battled to designate as Wilderness since the 1970’s. Gaining permanent protection for this wild place has been near the top of Conservation Northwest’s To-Do list for almost 15 years, confounded in part by opposition from hardliners at the local Diamond M Ranch operated by the McIrvin family.

Profanity also is the namesake for the wolf pack whose tragic fate has filled the news for the past three weeks. The pack’s reoccurring depredations of McIrvin cattle and livestock owned by another nearby rancher ran it afoul of the state’s Protocol for Lethal Removal of Gray Wolves During Recovery, a key policy that we and our allies worked hard to achieve through Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group (WAG). This has led the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to order the pack’s destruction. The McIrvins were also the ranchers involved when the state killed wolves from the Wedge Pack four years ago, adding more bitter history to this episode.

Coexistence, social tolerance and healthy wolf populations are all possible in Washington. We remain committed to the long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves alongside thriving rural communities. The loss of some wolves to conflict can be heart-wrenching, but it’s an expected component of a balancing act between people, livestock and predators sharing the same space. 

Conservation Northwest and several other conservation groups represented on the WAG, including Defenders of  Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and Wolf Haven International, have voiced sadness that these actions must be taken. However, we remain committed to the protocol we agreed to as a last resort for such situations. This support of the state’s lethal removal order understandably upset a lot of people. We do not make such decisions lightly, nor are they easy for us. We had good reasons for doing so, which I’ll lay out here.

I’ve worked for almost my entire adult life to have wolves in Washington. It deeply hurts to see wolves killed, and especially to sanction it. But our goal has always been the sustainable recovery of wolves to their ecological role in the state, not to protect each individual wolf or to promote the species in some mythical way.

For the last decade, nobody has been more invested in wolf recovery in Washington than Conservation Northwest. We’re doing everything we possibly can to facilitate peaceful coexistence between wolves and ranchers, to promote understanding and acceptance in the hunting community, to prevent poaching, and to build understanding of complex wolf behavior and ecology so that we can help form policy best suited to the realities on the ground.

It pains many of us that the state would kill any wolf. It’s that much worse that these events are occurring on our public lands in the Colville National Forest. It’s even further worse that some of the depredations have occurred in rugged terrain on which it’s difficult to provide the type of human presence around the cattle that is showing effectiveness in minimizing wolf conflict. Lastly, it pains us that this incident involves a ranch with a track record toward wolves that breeds skepticism that they’ve used enough deterrence effort to qualify for the wolf-removing relief of the lethal take protocol. I get all of that.

Know this: If we believed that the McIrvins had not held up their end, we would not be supporting the killing of the Profanity Pack wolves. Yes, we totally support the policy itself (the lethal take protocol), as even the most diligent steward using the best conflict avoidance measures can still get into conflict with wolves that persistently prey on livestock. Not only do such ranchers deserve support in surmounting this new challenge on a moral basis, but there’s simply no way that rural communities, who are the ones that overwhelmingly end up having wolves more involved in their lives than urban folks, would support wolf recovery without such policies. And without some level of rural social acceptance, wolves will be forever plagued with poaching and political opposition that will cause far more damage than the occasional state removal of a pack from areas where they are relatively numerous.

We support the state’s action because the facts as we know them acquit the McIrvins in this instance. What you may have seen in the Seattle Times or elsewhere, implying deliberate “dropping” of cattle on the wolf den and other allegations, is not supported by credible accounts we have received. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shared this account of the events, which we accept because we know the biologists and conflict specialists on the ground and were in touch with them throughout this episode. Washington State University has also released a clarification to correct claims made by its researchers in earlier articles.

Certainly some things could have been done better. The McIrvins needed more human presence earlier, and really need to commit themselves to permanent range riders if they’re to continue having cattle on such wild summer pasture. But this year they made substantial efforts and met the requirements of the state’s protocol to remove livestock carcasses and use at least one other preventative measure, in their case some human presence. Additionally, they delayed turn-out until their calves were bigger. For its part, the Colville National Forest should have been more engaged to make sure the Diamond M cattle were kept away from sensitive wolf areas, including rendezvous sites.

To give credit where it’s due, both the Diamond M Ranch and state wildlife conflict specialists significantly ramped deterrence efforts once the first dead and injured cows were discovered. Near constant human presence, including additional range riders and ranch staff on foot, was deployed from the time of the first depredation through the following weeks. Unfortunately, the wolf pack’s depredations continued despite these efforts.

The area of northeast Washington where these events have occurred contains more than half a dozen confirmed wolf packs, with additional packs nearby in Canada and Idaho. We do not expect the loss of Profanity Pack members to impact the sustained recovery of wolves in Washington.

So what now? There’s still half the Profanity Pack out there, as only six (of perhaps 12) were shot by the state. Two of them are adults that are collared and locatable. But there have been no known depredations in a week. The best science indicates that removal of half a pack can in some cases break the remainder of the pack of livestock depredation behavior. Fall is approaching and soon the cattle will start coming down out of the mountains, away from danger. So maybe the trauma is over; maybe like the Wedge Pack before it, which still roams the wilds, the Profanity wolves will halt their depredations and escape further killing. Knock on wood.

For perspective, it’s important to keep in mind that of Washington’s nearly 20 wolf packs, the Profanity Peak pack is the only one that is in conflict so far this year. That’s a great ratio of success for conflict avoidance efforts. Washington’s wolf population has been growing at approximately 30 percent per year in recent years. We expect that growth to continue. The area of northeast Washington where these events have occurred contains more than half a dozen confirmed wolf packs, with additional packs nearby in Canada and Idaho. We do not expect the loss of Profanity Pack members to impact the sustained recovery of wolves in Washington.

What’s more, the ranching community and even conservative legislators are well aware of the public outrage, and of how our state’s lead conservation groups stood by our commitment to the policy. They have responded honorably with a substantial increase in commitments to agreements with WDFW for conflict avoidance tactics. This is a promising sign of growing tolerance for wolves in rural communities.

Further, everyone is aware that the public land dimension of this episode is a sore spot, and policy discussion on that is sure to start with the Forest Service and other relevant agencies. All of this is progress that’s happening despite the outrage on social media and provocative statements lobbed from out-of-state groups. While I wouldn’t suggest that America is ready to end public lands grazing, perhaps there are parts of the landscape where the risk of wildlife conflict is too high, and for which other solutions can be found.

But understand that as long we have wolves in this state, which is hopefully forever more, we will periodically have officially-sanctioned wolf killing as a last resort to stop depredations. Conservation Northwest understands and supports that, and commits to doing our part to keep such events as infrequent as possible. In Montana, about 30 percent of the wolf population is killed annually through legal hunting and depredation removals combined. That’s progressive compared to policies in Idaho and Wyoming. Still, each of these states, as well as Canadian provinces, have hundreds of wolves and stable wolf populations even with such killings.

Through our advocacy for wolves and our collaboration with other wildlife stakeholders, I believe we can do better here than those states. Coexistence, social tolerance and healthy wolf populations are all possible in Washington. We remain committed to the long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves alongside thriving rural communities. The loss of some wolves to conflict can be heart-wrenching, but it’s an expected component of a balancing act between people, livestock and predators sharing the same space. And it won’t halt the comeback of these iconic canines in our state. We’ll have to find ways to deal with that constructively, and hopefully through respectful and civil discussion. It’s that sort of mature dialogue and on-the-ground collaboration that creates lasting conservation progress, for wolves and all that keeps the Northwest wild.

For the wild,

Mitch signature

Mitch Friedman

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