Outlook for the 2021 livestock grazing season in Washington wolf country

Outlook for the 2021 livestock grazing season in Washington wolf country

Conservation Northwest / Jun 07, 2021 / Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

There has been enough conflict and learning to see that when everyone does their part, the likelihood of cattle depredations goes down as does the need for wolf lethal removal.

The following is a joint statement from PAULA SWEDEEN, PH.D., Conservation Northwest’s Policy Director and Wolf Advisory Group representative, and JAY SHEPHERD, PH.D., Conservation Northwest’s Wolf Program Lead and Range Rider Pilot Project manager. jay Shepherd also leads the northeast washington wolf cattle collaborative.

Summer livestock grazing season is upon us, with cattle turnout on public and private range lands typically occurring this month. As leaders of Conservation Northwest’s wolf recovery and coexistence program and Range Rider Pilot Project, we have learned to approach this time of year with a mix of optimism and trepidation.

Photo of a Washington gray wolf by Dylan Collins. Used with permission.

Our optimism is based on the policy and legislative funding work we do leading up to the grazing season, and the knowledge of a growing presence of high-quality range riding—both our own cost-share efforts and the riders of our partner organization, the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative (NEWWCC).

Trepidation comes from uncertainty about the impact of potential gaps in riding due to lack of willingness, or lack of interest, to use the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) contract riding program. We have also learned that surprises and unpredictability can quickly turn events from a seemingly calm season to chaotic conflict.

Wolf/Livestock Special Focus Areas

On the policy front, though our participation on the Wolf Advisory Group (WAG) pushed for the establishment of Special Focus Areas (SFA) to better deal with areas of chronic livestock depredation and the resulting frequent lethal removal of wolves.

This has been an arduous discussion in the WAG for more than 18 months. The WAG did not come to consensus on language but we did send WDFW off to pilot core concepts that everyone agreed on, including:

  1. It is important to reduce both loss of livestock and lethal control of wolves in order to reduce the social conflict that occurs when wolves are back on the landscape.
  2. In wolf pack territories where lethal control was authorized in two of the prior three years, WDFW will work with livestock producers, others who have worked in the area to try to prevent depredations, landowners like the U.S. Forest Service, and the local county sheriff’s wildlife specialist (where applicable) to analyze why prior deterrence efforts have been successful or unsuccessful.
  3. WDFW conflict specialists will put together a plan for the next grazing season based on this analysis and have it reviewed by an outside third party. The plan should clearly address any gaps in deployment of non-lethal measures from prior seasons. For example, if there is not enough range riders to cover the large areas where dispersed grazing of livestock occurs, or they were not out at the right time (typically dawn or dusk in the summer) or in the right places where wolves and livestock may overlap.
  4. WDFW in cooperation with Washington Department of Agriculture (WDOA), the State Legislature, and non-profits are responsible for making sure all necessary resources are provided to ranchers cooperating in plans in the SFA’s.
  5. WDFW is working to pilot new tools in these areas with willing ranchers, such as GPS ear-tags on cows to help ranchers and range riders find them in dispersed situations, heavy tree cover, and/or steep terrain.
  6. There will be an assumption that everyone will put their best efforts forward to put together and implement these plans.
  7. If there isn’t cooperation either on plan development or implementation of proactive deterrence efforts, the WDFW Director has the right to withhold use of lethal control of wolves.

Ranchers on the WAG are skeptical that this approach will work, mostly based on a lack of trust that the State will be there for them when they need help. They did however acknowledge that it is important to try to find common ground, and that they understood the need for the discussion from the perspective of their conservation colleagues on the WAG.

Kettle and Togo Wolf Packs

Wolf packs in Washington as of late 2020. Map: WDFW. Click here for more information.

There are two wolf pack areas (or territories) this season that meet the definition of a Special Focus Area: the Kettle and Togo packs in northern Ferry County.

The Kettle Pack territory area was quiet last year—the first time since 2013 there were no depredations in that area. NEWWCC provided range riders to all the allotments surrounding those used by Diamond M Ranch, while the Diamond M used a rider from the Cattle Producers of Washington (CPOW).

The Togo Wolf Pack had one depredation last May that put it over the depredation threshold for lethal control. Lethal control was authorized by WDFW but the NEWWCC-led intensive range riding, including camping out around-the-clock with the cows, seemed to have been a factor in keeping any more cows from getting injured or killed for the rest of the season. No wolves were killed by WDFW in the Togo Pack last year.

This season, the Kettle Pack area only has one confirmed wolf, but in that country with wolves residing on all sides, a new pack could form at any time. Multiple wolves are showing up on remote cameras. Once again, NEWWCC is working with all the allotment holders surrounding the Diamond M Ranch’s allotments. We understand contracted range riders with the Cattle Producers of Washington are covering Diamond M’s allotments at this time, and contingent on new grant funding, will do so for the rest of the grazing season.

In the Togo Pack area, NEWWCC will cover one allotment, and another allottment where wolf-livestock conflict has occurred in the past will be managed through an individual contract, a Damage Prevention Cooperative Agreement for Livestock (DPCA-L) with the rancher, and potentially with some additional help from CPOW and NEWWCC.

Progress for coexistence in the State Legislature

In the Washington State Legislature, this past session we worked to make sure that both the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Washington Department of Agriculture (WDOA) were fully-funded for the next biennium for proactive non-lethal wolf/livestock conflict deterrence.

WDFW will receive $954,000 and WDOA will receive $952,000 to ensure that high-quality range riding and other proactive deterrence measures will be implemented in wolf territory, including funding for the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative to deploy range riders in the Kettle River Mountain Range.

A range rider at work in northeast Washington.

We also worked with state legislators to clarify the purpose of the Northeast Washington Wolf Livestock Management Grant to improve oversight and accountability of the grant process, making sure the funds are deployed for the highest quality and most proactive approaches for deterring livestock depredations. We want to try to prevent the kinds of issues we observed last season with questionable practices being used in areas that had multiple depredations.

NEWWCC received a second pass-through grant from the legislature (they received one in 2020 as well) allowing their Board of Directors to hire 19-20 range riders to work Kettle, Togo, Nc’icn, and the new Vulcan wolf pack areas. They will also have a rider in the Goodman Meadows pack area along the Idaho border.

Through Conservation Northwest’s private funds, our Range Rider Pilot Project will continue to support riders in the Smackout, Nc’icn, and Teanaway wolf pack territories. Come late winter/early spring, CNW will also deploy riders to protect calving operations where needed.

All told, CNW will be protecting cattle and wolves on 85,000 acres of wolf country through our own funds and NEWWCC’s range riding efforts will cover over 192,000 acres during this summer/fall grazing season.

Thorough range riding and conflict deterrence

There is more to successful range riding than just ensuring that people are out on the ground. Funding adequate coverage is certainly important, but making sure that riders are well-trained in understanding both wolf and livestock behavior and being willing and able to ride during the times when wolves are more active, particularly dusk and dawn, but sometimes at night, are also essential ingredients for success. And, being out there to check on livestock every day, or at least nearly every day, is a must. CNW and NEWWCC both have contract terms that require all of these things of the riders we hire and support through cost-share agreements.

We worked in the WAG last year to improve range riding expectations language in the Wolf Livestock Interaction Protocol to ensure that public dollars are being spent in the most effective manner possible. This will be the first full grazing season where these standards are in effect.

A further advancement in range riding is the complementary practice of herd management. We work with ranchers who are willing to use low-stress livestock handling techniques to group cattle in numbers that allow them to protect their calves, become more intimidating to wolves, and make it easier for riders to find cows over the large expanses of summer grazing allotments. Not all ranchers all willing to use these innovative techniques, so we adapt our practices to ensure the best coverage possible. However, we continue bring in education and training for those who wish to employ these practices that may have a better chance of preventing livestock loss and keeping wolves alive.

While we hope for a low-conflict grazing season, and are doing everything we can to contribute to that outcome, we know we can’t control for all possibilities. We hope that everyone necessary to the success of deploying proactive deterrents will step up to the challenges.

We also need to acknowledge up front that given everything we do and have done over the past eleven years to protect livestock in wolf country, we have no patience for operations that resist use of preventative techniques and turn down offers of assistance. Should depredations reach the lethal control threshold in that type of situation, we do not support the killing of wolves.

There has been enough conflict and enough learning to see that when everyone does their part, the likelihood of wolf depredations on livestock goes down, as does the need for lethal removal of the public’s wildlife. In the rare instances when enough preventative measures have been used and wolf lethal removal is still necessary, the social angst will be lower.

We will continue to strive for a healthy wolf population that does minimal damage to rural livelihoods in everything we do, but we are beyond tolerating situations where lethal removal is used in the absence of reasonable conflict prevention efforts. We prefer to finally have a season where we don’t have to face that outcome.


Learn more about our collaborative approach to WOLF conservation and COEXISTENCE. Or read about our RANGE RIDER PILOT PROJECT.
A wolf track photographed this spring in an area where range riders operate. Photo: Jay Shepherd