The move is likely to anger some conservation groups and deal a setback to wolf recovery efforts, though state officials said the step was necessary for sustainable, long-term wolf recovery in the region.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said two teams were in the field Friday to try to kill members of the Wedge Pack, which ranges over a remote area of northern Stevens County. Marksmen would hunt the wolves from the ground, and if those efforts were unsuccessful, they might use helicopters to aid their hunt, Director Phil Anderson said in a statement.
The pack is believed to have killed or injured at least 15 cattle from the Diamond M herd that grazes in a large area near the Canadian border, according to the statement. Those attacks have become increasingly more frequent since July, even after the agency killed a non-breeding member of the pack in August, and experts believe the wolves have become dependent on cattle for food.
"Once wolves become habituated to livestock as their primary food source, all of the wolf experts we've talked to agree that we have no alternative but to remove the entire pack," Anderson said. "By doing that, we will preserve the opportunity for the recovery of gray wolves in balance with viable livestock operations."
Gray wolves were eliminated as a breeding species in Washington by the 1930s, but they have since migrated to Washington from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia. They are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.
A wolf management plan approved late last year requires 15 successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years to remove endangered species protections. Four breeding pairs would be required in eastern Washington, the North Cascades and the South Cascades or Northwest coast, as well as three other pairs anywhere in the state.
There are currently eight confirmed wolf packs in the state -- five of them in the state's northeast corner. Four other packs are suspected but not yet confirmed.
Two groups that participated in the development of the wolf management plan supported the decision Friday.
Cattlemen must work with the state to find solutions that include nonlethal measures to minimize their losses, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. They also are being encouraged to enter into cooperative agreements with the state for managing conflicts between livestock and wolves.
Those could include "caught in the act" kill permits to allow ranchers to kill wolves to protect their livestock. The department also offers compensation to ranchers for livestock killed by wolves.
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said that he understands and agrees that pack removal is the right action at this time, despite his difficulty accepting the decision. But he also said he hopes the department and ranchers will work together to avoid a repeat of this situation.
"There has to be a commitment on the part of all sides to allow wolves to occupy the landscape while protecting the rancher's livelihood and maintain their ability to raise cattle," he said.
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