Local ranchers briefed on wolf monitoring program

RaeLynn Ricarte

Wolf attacks on cattle in Northeastern Washington don't just cause direct losses, they also adversely affect the health of the surviving members of the herd, according to a local presentation by the Cattle Producers of Washington.

When wolves attack a herd, it creates trauma that can cause the surviving steers, calves and cows to lose weight, which is a huge loss to the rancher because the market price of cattle is set by poundage. Stressed cows give birth to lower-weight calves and sometimes even miscarry. Cattle injured in an attack can get infections and die of a secondary illness. Scott Nielsen, a local rancher and treasurer of Cattle Producers, said these and other problems caused by wolf attacks threaten the viability of many family ranches.

Nielsen’s presentation was given at the annual Cattle Producers meeting, which was held Oct. 17 at Fruitland Vineyard & Winery. His message is backed up by a study done several years ago by Oregon State University. Researchers determined that herds attacked by wolves remember the experience and exhibit symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder. They become jumpier and often refuse to return to the grazing area where the incident occurred.

Cattle Producers works toward the profitability and longevity of the industry, so the organization obtained a $144,908 grant from the state to put livestock monitors into the field during the spring and summer of 2020, when cattle were turned out onto public and private rangeland to graze, said Nielsen.

He said the grant was approved by the Washington Legislature and administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to avoid the conflicts that have occurred between ranchers and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A subcommittee provided oversight of the program to create a community-based approach of assisting ranchers in Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties with non-lethal measures to stop wolf depredations. The monitors were also tasked with providing a human presence, investigating unusual pack behavior and monitoring wolf movement.

Serving on the subcommittee was Nielsen, who is also president of the Stevens County Cattlemen's Association; Jeff Flood, wildlife conflict specialist with the Stevens County Sheriff's Office; Dave Dashiell, a member of Cattle Producers; Justin Hedrick, also a member; Joey McCanna, conflict program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife; and Brandon Weinmann, range program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.

“Our livestock monitors increased the frequency of engagement with the affected producers, deployed deterrence measures and coordinated with producers and government agencies in a manner that built trust and confidence,” said Nielsen.

Although the grant funds have run out, Nielsen is hopeful that the Legislature will see fit to renew it because addressing the concerns of ranchers is vital to their success as food producers. Two of the livestock monitors reported at the meeting that they learned to watch for wolf depredations whenever they saw unusual behavior in cattle herds, such as the animals bunching up instead of spreading out, and being in places where they would not ordinarily graze.

Nielsen pointed out that two of the monitors ended up spending their time on private land belonging to two ranching families because of the severity of their wolf problems. It should not be up to livestock producers to manage wolves, that is the responsibility of the state, he said, but politics have prevented Fish and Wildlife from controlling predator behavior.

Although most of the game officials at the local level are good to work with, the policies that guide management of wolves are being made by ideologues at a higher level, said Nielsen.

“WDFW moves the goal posts in this game all the time,” said Ted Wishon, one of the local ranchers who relied on the livestock monitors for help. “WDFW should be required to manage predators and allow us to do business instead of putting us in the position to have to manage wolves.”

He said ranchers are spending a lot of time and energy on preventative measures, such as installing alarm or scare devices, putting up more fences, reducing attractants, changing birthing cycles so vulnerable calves are older before being turned out onto remote grazing lands, and having more of a human presence.

Despite taking all these precautions, he said calves were still torn up in a pen on his private land after being contained for a late branding session.

He said the protein needs of packs with pups is “unbelievable” and drives their aggression. The level of injuries and kills went up significantly when their parents started training them to hunt. In fact, he said the depredation level increased so substantially that his family moved their herd off a grazing allotment on public lands onto their private property at a lower elevation.

“Sure enough, the depredations started coming to us,” said Wishon.

When the number of livestock kills meets the threshold for the state to hunt wolves — three depredations in 30 days or four in 10 months — he said it takes so long for Fish and Wildlife to approve the action that the pack is no longer working the same area, so trapping is unsuccessful. Wishon said his family had injuries and deaths from 13 confirmed attacks over a period of several weeks. His in-laws in Ferry County had 23 confirmed wolf injuries and kills. The family has collectively chosen not to accept government compensation for their losses because that program has strings attached.

When you take the money, the state — in collaboration with environmental groups — is given a say into how you raise livestock and what your ranching practices should be, said Wishon.

“I don't need other people holding my purse strings. And the compensation is a pretty small bandaid [for overall damage to herd],” he said.

Wishon believes the presence of livestock monitors spared his family from more losses by depredation. He said it is only fair that the Legislature continues to fund that program because the price to have a growing wolf population in the state should not be borne solely by ranchers.