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WA: City concerned about wolves from wildlife refuge near forest lands

Jacqueline Allison

Incidents involving wolves from a Fidalgo Island wildlife refuge have prompted the City of Anacortes to put up warning signs in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands in an effort to increase public safety.

In September, wolves from Predators of the Heart killed a hiker’s dog on wildlife refuge private property, and in October, a wolf escaped its enclosure and went onto a neighbor’s property, according to copies of reports from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office.

Predators of the Heart is a 10-acre wooded wildlife preserve home to wolves, cougars, reptiles, birds and other exotic animals focused on conservation and education, according to its website. It is located in a residential neighborhood in unincorporated Skagit County and is adjacent to the forest lands.

A Dec. 26 city notice posted online and at four locations near the southern end of the Cranberry Lake area alerted trail users that a wolf had escaped onto private property in October, in addition to a 2012 incident in which a wolf from the refuge was captured in the city forest lands.

In October, the wolf jumped over a 7-foot electric fence and traveled onto a neighbor’s property, the report states. The wolf remained on Predators of the Heart property for the majority of time, but the animal was not secured for 18 hours, according to the report.

The city’s main concern was public safety and notification, said Forest Lands Manager Jonn Lunsford.

“(The Parks Department) talked about it internally with city staff, public safety staff and City Council, and we acted on it just after Christmas to make the public aware that in the area, just what the signs say, that a wolf had gotten out so the public could be informed to make the recreational choice that’s right for them,” Lunsford said.

The city has also tried to clarify the trail boundary between the forest lands and Predators of the Heart, including building a natural barrier of logs and branches between the properties and putting up an “approaching private property” sign, Lunsford said.

The goal was to help hikers stay on-trail after the hiker whose dog was killed by wolves took a wrong turn onto the wildlife refuge property in September.

In a witness statement provided with the sheriff’s report, the hiker wrote that he was walking a family dog on Trail 118 in the forest lands and came to an intersection with two unmarked trails. He turned onto a trail that led him past a short fence and onto the refuge property.

Predators of the Heart owner Dave Coleburn, who was nearby with two wolves on leashes and a group of guests, warned the man that he was on private property and that he had wolves with him.

Coleburn, who has presented his wild animals at schools and public events for 20 years, recently started an Airbnb “experience” that allows guests to walk and take pictures with wolves in the woods on his property, according to his Airbnb page. The guests were doing a photo shoot with the wolves when the hiker became lost, the sheriff’s report states.

One wolf broke away and bit the hiker’s dog, and a second wolf then broke away and joined the attack. Coleburn and others in the group tried separate the animals, but the wolves killed the dog, according to the statement.

Anacortes Police Department Animal Control initially responded to the incident and confirmed it took place on private property in the county, not in the city forest lands.

“It was unfortunate what happened with the dog, but I think the most important thing to know is that it happened on our property. It did not happen in the park lands,” Coleburn told the Anacortes American.

Ever since the city posted the signs, Coleburn said he has received calls from community members concerned about loose wolves. He said the city’s signs have caused people to spread rumors.

A wolf has only escaped its enclosure one other time in 20 years and had never before attacked a dog, he said.

In February 2012, a wolf jumped out of its enclosure and was captured by Animal Control in the forest lands, according to a police report.

Coleburn said the refuge is spending $40,000 on new fences and enclosures.

“We have perimeter fences, underground fences, electric fences and locked gates,” he said. “Nobody else has the security we have.”

In a letter to neighbors after the incident, Coleburn wrote that wolves are naturally timid and “at no point did we sense a threat to our neighbors or animals.”

He said he felt bad the dog was killed and doesn’t blame the hiker because there were no “private property” or “no trespassing” signs posted at the time. He has since added signs to prevent hikers from wandering onto this property.

He also put in place other safety measures such as better collars and leashes and requiring the wolves to be tethered to their handler’s belt so they can’t break away, he said.

“This was a one-time incident,” Coleburn said.

He said all the money from the Airbnb business is going back to make the facility safer.

People from all over the world come to Anacortes every week to take part in the “Wolf Encounter” experience, which has over 500 online reviews, he said.

“We’re the No. 1 (Airbnb experience) in the world,” Coleburn said. “And you don’t get to be there by being irresponsible.”

One recent guest wrote, “Dave has created an incredible sanctuary for his wolves and other rescued animals, and he provides an in-depth experience with them and education about them.”

Another guest said, “The Predators of the Heart experience is an extraordinary opportunity to have hands-on interaction with gentle playful wolves. Our guide and host “Dave” has an honest compassion for these beautiful misunderstood animals and shares his knowledge willingly.”

Friends of the Forest Education and Outreach Director Denise Crowe said that the organization stands behind the city’s decision to post the warning signs.

“We were deeply saddened by the initial incident in the woods and concerned about the potential for other incidents like them to occur,” Crowe said. “We fully support the city’s efforts in educating the public about the operation bordering the forest lands in an effort to increase public safety.”

Coleburn has faced concern from community members before.

His neighbors previously questioned whether the wildlife refuge belongs in a residential neighborhood and pushed for a change in county law to make ownership of many potentially dangerous wild animals illegal, except in facilities such as a state-defined wildlife sanctuary or accredited zoo. The neighbors said they wanted to see the animals moved to a legal facility or to a county that allowed them.

Skagit County passed an ordinance and sued Coleburn when he failed to comply. But the county later dropped the lawsuit after finding that while county code prohibits ownership of the animals, there is a state legal exemption for animals exhibited at state fairs, said Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich.

“We asked (the judge) to dismiss (the complaint) because he wasn’t in violation of state law,” Weyrich said.

After the September incident involving the dog attack, the county considered declaring the wolves “potentially dangerous dogs,” but after Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt spoke with Coleburn, he decided the animals didn’t fit the criteria.

A “potentially dangerous dog” is a dog with a known propensity, tendency or disposition to attack, or who bites a domestic animal off the owner’s property, according to county code.

This attack occurred on the owner’s property, Reichardt said. Whether a wolf or hybrid wolf automatically has a tendency to attack would be a question for the county commissioners to decide, he said.

“(Coleburn) is trying to be a responsible owner,” the sheriff said. “I cautioned him that he needs to take steps so this doesn’t happen because the forest lands runs right up against his property.”

The owners of the dog killed by wolves said they believe the owner of Predators of the Heart should completely contain his animals.

“We would like a real fence completely enclosing wild animals like a zoo would have,” said Dave Mourning, whose father was walking the dog when it was killed.

Meg Mourning said the short fence separating the public forest lands from the wildlife refuge woods near Trail 118 is inadequate, and that signs won’t stop a wolf from getting out.

“The law should at least require that these animals are kept away from the public,” she said. “It’s almost four times worse because it’s directly against Anacortes trails.”