A Thurston County judge Friday issued an order that allows the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to kill an injured member of the Togo wolf pack, which has preyed upon livestock in Ferry County, according to the agency.
The order allowed the agency to kill the adult male wolf as early as 5 p.m. Friday. The wolf, which was shot and wounded Aug. 23 by a rancher whose livestock had been targeted, has a GPS collar and was expected to be relatively easy to find.
The superior court judge’s decision, the latest in the back-and-forth legal battle between conservation groups, ranchers and WDFW over its wolf policy, could raise controversy on a topic that has been the source of death threats — to wolves and people.
Amaroq Weiss, a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the conservation organizations which has sued WDFW, said she “deeply saddened” for the “Togo wolf family.”
“When they kill him, his mate will have to hunt on her own for herself and her two pups. Because livestock is easier to catch, there’s a likelihood she will return to livestock,” Weiss said. “If their whole point of killing wolves is to change behavior so they won’t have wolf conflict, they’re doing absolutely the worst thing to do.”
Some northeastern Washington ranchers, who feared WDFW would lose its ability to kill wolves causing them problems, greeted the news with relief.
“That’s good. Once they start eating cattle, there’s only one remedy — to kill them,” said Justin Hedrick, an owner of Diamond M Ranch and president of the Stevens County Cattleman’s Association. “A dead wolf no longer causes problems.”
WDFW director Kelly Susewind had approved the killing of the wolf on Aug. 20, but a different Thurston County judge that day granted conservation groups a temporary restraining order, halting the action. The temporary restraining order expired at 5 p.m. Friday.
The Togo wolves have targeted cattle at least six times since November, according to the state wildlife agency, and killed multiple calves and a cow. Three of the wolf depredations took place in a period of 30 days, which is frequent enough that the state believes it is allowed to approve lethal action under its 2011 wolf conservation plan and its 2017 wolf-livestock protocols.
The Center for Biological Diversity, and a second conservation group, Cascadia Wildlands, took aim at the wolf protocols in their lawsuit which will continue, despite the judge’s denial of a preliminary injunction.
The conservation groups argue the agency should have completed a supplementary environmental impact statement when it created the protocols for killing wolves. They also argue that WDFW’s decision to kill the Togo pack did not result from a “reasoned decision-making process.”
That the rancher shot and injured the wolf days after the judge’s temporary restraining order only adds fuel to the controversy. The agency and the Ferry County Sheriff’s Office are investigating.
The rancher reported to law enforcement that he shot at a collared wolf, which was with its pups and near his livestock. The rancher told WDFW he shot at the adult wolf when it approached at him and barked, the agency said.
“Vocalizations by wolves are not uncommon when people approach wolf pups, and adult wolves often attempt to escort perceived intruders away from areas where pups are present,” according to WDFW. “While these behaviors are not necessarily predatory in nature, they can feel threatening.”
A wolf biologist with the agency later tracked the wolf using its GPS collar, and saw that one of its legs had been broken below the knee. The agency’s wolf managers believe the animal had a “good chance of surviving,” according to its website.
“The ranchers insist that we’re involved,” said Ferry County Sheriff Ray Maycumber. “Historically, there’s been a trust issue with our ranchers and the department. … We validate their findings.”
He said the investigation would be “documenting the sequence of circumstances” that led to the shooting.
“At the end of it, a determination is made whether that was a good shoot — whether or not it is within the statute or outside the statute,” he said. “It’s a standard procedure. Any time a wolf is shot under any circumstances, an investigation is done to make sure the claims of the person who shot were legitimate.”
Weiss, the wolf advocate, questioned the shooting and also the actions of WDFW. On Aug. 16 and 18, before the temporary restraining order was issued, the agency had provided the rancher with information about the Togo packs’ rendezvous sites, according to a letter sent by WDFW’s lawyers in the state Attorney General’s Office. Rendezvous sites are where adult wolves congregate with pups.
Weiss said her organization believed WDFW would find and kill the wolf soon.
“If and when they kill him tonight, they will need to do a full necropsy on him,” she said Friday. “We will request all that information be preserved.”
Rendezvous sites are often shared with ranchers, according to the letter, to help them avoid conflict between livestock and wolves. The rancher visited the rendezvous site, where the shooting took place, “because he thought there may be wolf-livestock overlap.”
Maycumber cautioned against prejudgment of the rancher’s shooting.
“Mere existence of an investigation does not present an inference that a crime was committed,” he said, noting that the investigation could provide exculpatory evidence, too.
Maycumber, who sees his job as “peacemaker” in the debate over wolves, said he’s often surprised by how hot tempers run on all sides of the issue.
“Sometimes it’s the activists and sometimes it’s the ranchers,” he said. “Things hit social media and they go crazy … we’ve had death threats to me and my family.”
Wolves began a rapid return to Washington state in 2008, after being trapped, poisoned and hunted to local extinction here in the early 1900s. Their numbers have grown from just a handful in 2008 to at least 122 today, according to WDFW’s latest count. Most live in rural, rugged areas of northeast Washington.
WDFW has approved the killing of several wolf packs in recent years. The state has killed 18 wolves and eliminated three entire packs since 2012, according to the conservation groups.