Ranchers track wolves with GPS

COLVILLE — In an effort to protect their cattle herds, two generations of a northeast Washington ranch family are tracking wolves using satellites and GPS.

The efforts are part of a pilot program being sponsored by the state and the environmental group Conservation Northwest. The aim is to keep Washington’s growing wolf population out of trouble, the Spokesman-Review reported Sunday.

Last year, government trappers and sharpshooters killed seven members of the Wedge pack for repeatedly attacking another Stevens County rancher’s cattle.

That short-term fix drew intense criticism. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife received 12,000 emails about the decision, mostly in opposition.

Two wolves have again been spotted in the Wedge pack’s territory, either remnants of the original pack or new wolves moving in.

Many Washington residents want wolves, said John Dawson, a 70-year-old rancher whose son, Jeff, also runs a Stevens County cattle operation.

“I can’t fight that,” Dawson said. “You have to meet in the middle; you have no choice. … We put most of our cattle in wolf territory for the summer. I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about wolves so we can meet them at the door.”

Conservation Northwest supported last year’s decision to remove the Wedge pack, but also sought nonlethal ways to mitigate the issue.

The pilot program consists of equipping range riders, the people tasked with herding the cattle, with laptops that download GPS data. The data come from wolves that have been collared. They are known as “Judas wolves” for betraying the pack’s location.

The data give the wolves’ locations for the past 24 hours, though the system isn’t foolproof, said Jay Shepherd, a state wildlife conflict specialist. Dense stands of trees can block signals, and the timing of satellite orbits affects data collection.

Last winter, the state captured and collared three wolves in the Smackout pack. One of the collars has a radio-based signal that can be detected when the wolf is nearby. The other two wolves received GPS collars. One of the collars has stopped working. The remaining GPS collar is on a young male that doesn’t always stay with the pack.

GPS tracking adds a high-tech element to modern range riding, but much of it is still grunt work. The Smackout pack’s territory covers about 400 square miles. John and Jeff Dawson’s cattle graze 10 to 15 percent of the pack’s territory, but their range encompasses the heart of it.

Conservation Northwest helps finance three range riders in in Stevens County, Cle Elum and Wenatchee.

Hiring a range rider costs $15,000 to $20,000 for the five-month grazing season, said Jay Kehne of the environmental group.

The state and individual ranchers also contribute to the cost.

In addition, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife provides daily satellite downloads on GPS-collared wolves to help range riders manage the cows.

So far, the efforts are paying off for John Dawson.

“We’ve lost nothing to wolves,” he said.

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Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com

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