Range rider denies abandoning post; incident illustrates inherent problems with program
- By Eli Francovich The Spokesman-Review
Two range riders who were supposed to be protecting cattle in Ferry County in 2018 were more than 100 miles away in Spokane, shopping and spending time at the Davenport Hotel, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife investigation that has since been referred to a Thurston County prosecutor.
Meanwhile, environmental groups charge, wolves killed cattle in the area the range riders were supposed to be patrolling, which led in turn to the wolves being exterminated.
As for the range riders themselves, one of them denied in a Friday interview that they neglected their duties at all.
The allegations and denials are the latest chapter in a long and tense saga between those who graze cattle on public lands in Washington and those who support the return of wolves to the area.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is recommending second-degree theft charges be filed against several contract employees tasked with keeping wolves from killing cattle in northeast Washington.
While the amount of money allegedly stolen is small, the investigation highlights the need for stricter oversight of the state’s range riding program and undermines the department’s rationale for killing wolves in some cases, said Chris Bachman, the wildlife program manager at the Spokane-based Lands Council.
“I want to see range riding work,” Bachman said. “I want to see it done well and right. This kind of stuff is what is in the way of that happening.”
Range riders Arron and Jolene Scotten lied about when they worked and were paid for days they did not work, according to documents filed in King County on Jan. 9. The investigation’s notes were included in an ongoing lawsuit filed by three individuals against the department. The documents were previously withheld from the public record to “preserve the integrity” of the investigation.
In an interview Friday, Arron Scotten denied the allegations.
“I disputed pretty much everything he had to say,” Scotten said of his interview with the fish and wildlife detective.
The case has been referred to the Thurston County prosecutor, a department spokesperson said.
At its core, the investigation highlights the challenges facing the coexistence of cattle and wolves in the West’s second most populous state.
Each spring, ranchers in northeast Washington send their cattle into the steep and thickly treed Colville National Forest, where most of the state’s more than 120 wolves roam. In a predator-free landscape this was a tenable situation. But since wolves returned to the state in 2008, they have killed cattle each year.
And because of the area’s topography, many traditional nonlethal deterrents — pastures, dogs, lights and colored flags tied to fences — don’t work well. Instead, range riding is widely seen as the most effective nonlethal deterrent.
It’s also the hardest to quantify or manage, even if the idea behind it is simple and ancient: consistent human presence keeps wolves away. In practice, that means riders often spend days or weeks in the woods, out of cell reception. What’s more, riders need to know how wolves and cattle behave, while simultaneously having the skills to live in the woods, ride horses, fix all-terrain vehicles and more.
It’s a job that is not conducive to timecards.
“There is an expertise there and most people who engage in range riding are not experts and need to be schooled and trained by those who do it professionally,” said wolf expert and advocate Carter Niemeyer in a previous interview with The Spokesman-Review. “Where it gets off to a bad start is there is a pot of money. … People come running and say, ‘How do I get some of it?’ ”
If the state’s investigation is correct, that’s what happened in the case of DS Ranch.
Washington Fish and Wildlife detective Lenny Hahn first started investigating the DS Ranch on Oct. 15, 2018. At that time, the contract was valued at $352,000 and listed seven different people, including Jolene and Arron Scotten and several of their relatives, some of whom lived together.
According to cell phone records obtained via a search warrant, there were numerous times Scotten and his wife said they were working when they were not. Some of those periods aligned with times when wolves attacked cattle.
And this is where, according to Bachman and several other pro-wolf organizations that provided the records to The Spokesman-Review, the Scottens’ deception cost the state more than just money.
Washington’s lethal removal policy allows for the killing of wolves if they kill or injure livestock three times in a 30-day period or four times in a 10-month period — but only if two nonlethal deterrents have already been deployed.
On Sept. 12, 2018, the department announced the planned killing of members of the Old Profanity Territory (OPT) wolf pack after repeated attacks on cattle. According to a news release, the livestock producer had used several nonlethal deterrents, including range riding, calving outside of the wolf pack’s range, delaying the turnout of calves until they were larger (and harder to kill), removing livestock carcasses, and removing sick and injured livestock.
According to department documents, justifying the need to kill some OPT wolves was made partly on the assumption of heavy range rider presence.
Meanwhile, the investigation alleges Scotten and his wife, who rode primarily in the OPT pack area for the Diamond M Ranch, were not working when they said they were.
For instance, on Sept. 4 and 5, 2018, Scotten claimed to have worked a combined 25 hours. But he was actually in Spokane buying building supplies from Ziggy’s Building Materials for a portion of that time, according to the department’s investigation. During that same two-day stretch, the OPT pack injured two calves and killed one calf.
Just days later, on Sept. 12, department Director Kelly Susewind authorized the killing of members of the OPT pack in response to repeated attacks on cattle.
Six days after the department approved lethal removal, Scotten claimed to have worked seven hours. However, according to the investigation, he was in Spokane staying the night at the Davenport Hotel on Sept. 18 and 19. Jolene Scotten also claimed to have worked eight hours on Sept. 19, while phone records place her in Spokane, according to the investigation.
On Sept. 21, the department confirmed the OPT pack attacked and injured five calves.
Meanwhile, some at the department were questioning the range riding efforts in the area.
“WDFW had concerns with documenting the work by range riders, as staff had not seen the range riders during most field checks or on most trail camera photos,” states a letter sent from a Ferry County Fish and Wildlife staff member to the agency’s Region 1 director on Oct. 25, 2018.
The next day, the department authorized another round of lethal removal.
In fact, out of 440 15-second videos taken by agency trail cameras in the OPT pack area throughout September and October, riders with DS Ranch were only spotted four times.
Those concerns persisted. In notes from a call in July 2019 discussing the OPT pack, employees in the district questioned whether “actual range riding, not just driving on the road” had ever taken place.
“Have never had actual, quality range riding on this landscape,” the notes state. “Daily patrols aren’t doing much.”
Arron Scotten is a fifth-generation cattle rancher and 20-year Navy veteran. In 2018, he teamed up with Jay Shepherd, a former Fish and Wildlife biologist who lives in Chewelah, and created the nonprofit Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative. The hope was to work hand-in-hand with ranchers who were losing cattle to wolves.
The setup — a rancher and a biologist who both live in the area — promised to assuage the common complaint that pro-wolf groups and preachers of coexistence have no idea what it’s like to actually live near predators.
Scotten resigned from his seat on the board Nov. 9, 2018, because he wanted to be paid by the organization, Shepherd said. It’s illegal for board members of nonprofits to be paid by the nonprofit they serve.
Shortly after Scotten resigned, Shepherd said he and others became aware of the investigation and elected not to hire him. Shepherd knew little about the investigation, other than it was happening, he said. He does believe, though, that Scotten’s decision to bring his family members onto the Fish and Wildlife contract was a mistake.
“There was a hell of a lot of money at stake,” he said. “Arron’s family kind of became the face of the department in Ferry County. And there was some bitterness in all of that.”
Shepherd urged caution in drawing conclusions, noting wolf issues are notoriously politicized.
“Everyone wants to roll the facts in their favor,” he said. “I don’t know what the facts are.”
Scotten, for his part, dismisses the allegations.
“If they want to pull phone records they can pull phone records all they want,” he said. “I loan my phone out.”
As for the agency’s cameras not spotting him or other riders from DS Ranch, he said they intentionally avoid the areas where they know cameras are, instead focusing on trying to find cattle.
Scotten didn’t get a state contract in 2019 because of the investigation. Still he rode for some of his neighbors, he said, including the Diamond M Ranch. He continued to ride, he said, because he believes the wolf issue represents a bigger threat.
“It’s (wolves) used as a political ploy,” he said. “It’s used as a weapon to try to remove grazing on public lands, and if you sit back and do absolutely nothing about it, you’re basically allowing the other side to take control. And for me that’s unacceptable.”
‘Not employed effectively’
In the world of government contracts, $352,000, the total contract value listed in the department’s investigation, is not that much money. Nor is the amount the Scottens allegedly stole, which is somewhere around $2,000.
At the same time, the number of cattle and wolves killed each year is small. Since 2012, the department has killed 31 wolves. Meanwhile, the number of wolves has grown on average 28 percent per year. As for the number of cattle, less than 100 have been killed by wolves since 2012.
But in the wolf wars, small numbers can have big ramifications.
First, consider the setting. Ferry and Stevens counties routinely top the list of Washington’s poorest places. In 2017, for instance, Ferry County’s per capita income hovered just over $20,000. Per state rules, range riders can earn a maximum of $35,200 a year, a salary easily exceeding the county average.
And of the 31 wolves killed by the department, 26 of them were killed after attacking Diamond M cattle — the same cattle the Scottens have been tasked with protecting. Those yearly losses have led many to question whether range riding works, especially in that particular area.
“Now we know why. Range riding has not been employed effectively,” Bachman said in an email. “It is important that we standardize what range riding is and have required criteria that are met if we are going to say range riding is an employed non lethal deterrent in the landscape.
“Wolves are recolonizing our state. They are here to stay,” he continued. “We graze livestock on public lands. It is one of the accepted multiple uses in our national forests. We need to figure out the best path forward to coexist with wildlife. This is going to take collaboration and compromise.”