by Scott Sandsberry
YAKIMA, Wash. — As far as Mark Herke is concerned, the occasional cougar was bad enough. He’s lost cattle on his Ahtanum ranch in 2005, 2007 and 2010 — a bull and a cow the first year, a calf in each of the latter two, each time killed by a cougar.
But a cougar, he said, “is happier to get the deer.” And it hunts alone.
Wolves are pack hunters. “That,” Herke said, “is a hellacious tool.
“This wolf is not going to be a game-changer. It’s going to be game over.”
That’s why Herke and the other members of the Yakima County Farm Bureau last week came out in opposition of Washington’s state wolf management plan, thus echoing the sentiment of Okanogan County commissioners who last summer petitioned to remove all protections from the state’s wolves.
The farm bureau’s press release said the state’s elk fences would enable wolves “to trap and slaughter” large numbers of elk. “It seems ironic,” the release went on, “that we, as tax payers, paid to have elk introduced into this area, paid to have the wildlife fences built, pay to feed the wildlife, and now are paying to have wolves eat the wildlife.”
The state also pays hunters — by way of landowners’ damage permits — to keep elk from gorging on private croplands. That’s how a hunter and his 9-year-old son had an intriguing Nov. 26 encounter with the Teanaway wolf pack roaming the hills of northwest Kittitas County.
Don Wood of Kent was hunting on an antlerless elk permit on a friend’s property off Teanaway Road when a wolf approached within 20 yards and watched them for quite a while.
“It came up to a bush that the leaves had fallen off of, so it was just kind of sticks and we could see it,” Wood said. “It was staring directly at us for probably a good three or four minutes.”
Wood said he was fascinated but, with his rifle in his arm, was not afraid, “just cautious. My son was standing right beside me; I told him, ‘Look, it’s a wolf.’ He was like, ‘Whoa.’ We didn’t really say much because wanted to be quiet.”
Eventually the wolf trotted off, and Wood’s son, Kenny, walked over to look at its tracks. After a couple of minutes, though, four other wolves — one of which wearing what appeared to be one of the state’s radio-collar units — approached from the same direction.
“I was telling (Kenny) to stop, and I went over to him because he didn’t realize what was going on. At that point, I was a little more concerned,” Wood said.
Still, though, he was more curious than nervous, and instead of raising his rifle, he raised his smart phone to take some photographs of the wolves until they ambled off.
“I had the phone in one hand and the rifle in the other,” Wood said. “(The wolves) stayed spread apart. I think they were coming down looking for breakfast and trying to determine if we were breakfast or not. At the time, I was alert and just trying to assess the whole situation, wasn’t really concerned. A couple of days later, at home in my bed, I was got to thinking, ‘Hey, that really could have gone the other way.’”
Herke, the Yakima County Farm Bureau member, is concerned about what will happen with greater number of wolves in the state. Though the Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington State Sheep Producers have come out in support of the state’s wolf management plan, Herke calls the plan’s goal of 15 breeding pairs “an unsustainable number” and said some YCFB board members would prefer to see no wolves whatsoever in Washington.
“But we’re way past that point now,” he said. “That horse is out of the barn.”
Washington’s wolf population is at least 27 now, including three breeding pairs, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s year-end survey of the state’s five confirmed wolf packs.
“That (wolf number) is a minimum. We know there are other wolves,” said WDFW spokesperson Madonna Luers. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve taken since that (survey) went out, and it’s always, ‘We’ve got more wolves.’”
Seven of them are believed to be in the Teanaway pack, roaming the rolling hills of northwest Kittitas County. That pack has yet to be involved in any livestock predation, though several pack members feeding on the carcass of a female sheep — killed by a cougar — injured a shepherd dog belonging to the Martinez family sheep-ranching operation based in Moxie.
The state paid for the dog’s veterinary bills; it also paid $650 to the owner of a calf killed by wolves last fall in Colville, the lone verified case of domestic livestock predation by wolves in Washington so far.
In each case the money came from $30,000 in an account funded half by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and half in matching funds from Defenders of Wildlife — a circumstance that Washington Cattlemen’s Association vice president Jack Field called “a conflict of interest.”
“The folks who are funding this do not share the same goals the livestock producers have in wanting to manage and control problem wolves,” Field said. “It is (the state’s) responsibility, not some outside entity’s responsibility, to fund it.”
But not all private landowners around the state, even those in rural areas, are particularly averse to the wolves’ arrival. Typical of that response is that of Dan Studley, one of the property owners on the land Wood was hunting when he and his son encountered those several members of the Teanaway pack.
“(The wolves) came on their own. They weren’t planted,” Studley said. “I look at them like the bear and the cougar and the elk and everything else around us. They’re just wildlife. I don’t oppose them at all. If they became a problem and (state officials) had to trap some and movement, then they’ll do that.
“I just don’t see that they’re going to impact our lives that much.”