Wedge Wolf Operation Cost Over $75,000; Repeat Of Pack Elimination ‘Unlikely’ – Report

It cost WDFW at least $76,500 to take out seven members of the livestock-depredating Wedge Pack in an intensive air-and-ground operation that is “unlikely” to ever happen again, reports Becky Kramer in today’s Spokesman-Review.

It’s a rough estimate that doesn’t include the agency’s investigations into cattle injuries and kills there or the huge amounts of time that high-ranking wolf managers found themselves devoting to the pack this summer and fall.

All totaled, WDFW has spent $376,000 on wolf management in 2012.

The information comes from a four-and-a-half-page-long, month-old letter from Director Phil Anderson to state Senator Kevin Ranker, chairman of a natural resources committee who has been outspoken about the removal of the pack in northern Stevens County.

It was sent to the Orcas Island Democrat the day before four WDFW honchos, including Anderson, appeared before the Fish & Wildlife Commission but did not publicly provide an estimate on how much the operation cost. It answers questions about what steps were taken before the pack was wiped out and those that will be in the future.

The letter shows that late September’s aerial part of the campaign to end attacks on the Diamond M Ranch’s calves on public and private grounds was most efficient in terms of kills and cost, taking just half a week and $22,000 to kill six wolves.

Putting state sharpshooters and trappers on the ground over five and half weeks in August and September resulted in one dead wolf and a bill of $54,500, Kramer reports.

The money did not come from hunter dollars; rather the Department of Fish & Wildlife is using funds from personalized license plate sales and other non-hunter sources.

The Wedge Pack was blamed for injuring or killing at least 17 16 cattle, mostly calves, between July and September. WDFW took out a young female wolf in August to attempt to stop the pattern, but the wolves only grew better at taking down the McIrvin’s stock through summer.

The ranchers responded by bringing injured animals as well as other cattle off their grazing allotments early.

Wolf management is a delicate balancing act. While the operation showed some that the agency was willing to play hardball with problematic wolves, it also alienated other constituencies.

Wolf populations will only continue to build in Washington — the latest unofficial estimate is around 100 animals — as will conflicts with livestock operators, but WDFW is warning that they’re not going to eliminate an entire pack again any time soon.

Rather, earlier removals of individual wolves and increased emphasis on nonlethal fixes are the new order of the day.

Says Becky Kramer’s article:

Future department actions to remove an entire pack are likely to be extremely rare if they occur at all, said Madonna Luers, a Fish and Wildlife department spokeswoman in Spokane.

“Our director (Phil Anderson) has said that he never wants to do this again,” Luers said. “… The social acceptance is just not there.”

Anderson and three other department staff were recently in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, where ranchers, government agencies and nonprofits are working to reduce wolf/livestock conflicts.

When a wolf pack starts to prey on livestock in the Blackfoot Valley, government officials there move swiftly to locate the pack and shoot a couple of wolves from the air as they’re feeding on the carcasses. The goal is to send a message to the remaining wolves that livestock aren’t viable prey.

Washington officials will try out the method during future livestock depredations, Luers said. “You hit (the wolves) hard and early,” she said. “They’re smart animals and they’re pack animals” that adapt to what’s happening in their environment.

While goings-on in the Wedge grabbed all the headlines, WDFW has been working elsewhere in the state.

There have been extensive efforts by biologists in east-central Stevens County to keep the Smackout Pack out of Jeff Dawson’s cattle, costs partially shared with Conservation Northwest.

Trappers have collared or recollared members of at least three packs, and tried to capture others.

Wolf techs have combed the eastern slopes of the northern Cascades for packs beyond the Lookouts and Teanaways as well as Blue Mountains, but haven’t found any.

They’ve responded to a pair of depredations in the Methow Valley and western Spokane County.

And next month, biologists will perform the annual and important year-end count to figure out the state’s minimum confirmed population. As of Dec. 31, 2011, it was at least 27 animals in five packs, of which three were successful breeding pairs, the benchmark measurement of recovery.

State officials acknowledged that actual wolf numbers were likely higher than that, and that’s been born out by this year’s confirmation of the Wedge, Huckleberry, Nc’icn and Strawberry Packs, all in Northeast Washington, by state and tribal officials.

Under the current management plan, 15 successful breeding pairs are needed for three straight years in certain numbers and locations across Washington for state delisting, or 18 in any one year, again in certain numbers and locations.

According to WDFW’s letter to Senator Ranker, since January of this year, the agency has spent $211,770 for field staffers’ time and efforts related to wolves, $35,000 for radio collars, $3,000 for trail cameras, and $40,000 for fladry, radio-activated guard, or RAG, boxes and screamer rounds.

The $76,500 for lethal removals in the Wedge does not include another $10,150 spent investigating 16 depredations, which required the presence of at least one wildlife biologist and a game warden plus follow-up conference calls with inside and outside wolf experts, according to the letter.

Nor does it “include Department indirect costs or include the significant investment of time associated with wolf management by senior wildlife managers, the Director’s Office, public affairs, or legal counsel,” the letter notes.

It does include 443 hours of overtime for game wardens hunting the pack on the ground when the mission was to remove up to four members.

Lest we forget how much wolves will have cost the other party in all this, the Diamond M, WDFW doesn’t hazard a guess, but points out to Ranker that “those costs are real and the husbandry and operational changes they made will impact their bottom line this year.”

The last page of the letter outlines “Ongoing and Future Actions to Avoid/Minimize Scenarios Requiring Pack Removal.”

To wit:

The letter closes by asking for Senator Ranker’s support for those legislative and budget proposals.

“They are critical for improving our efforts to address wolf-livestock conflict management and raise the level of public support and tolerance from those most directly affected by our rapidly recolonizing wolf population.

Sincerely,

Philip Anderson
Director
cc: Fish and Wildlife Commission”

Unless mail delivery to the San Juans has been inordinately slow this fall, Ranker’s reaction to the letter may or may not be seen in this comment he made to KING 5’s wolf reporter Gary Chittim two weeks ago:

“I’m going to be holding a hearing on this and really diving into the facts. What did happen and what didn’t happen. What did the rancher do? What did the rancher do not do to try and preempt this situation.”

The letter and honchos’ commission appearance on TVW have attempted to address those questions.

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