The Forest Service worker who stumbled onto the Loup Loup Pack’s rendezvous site actually twice climbed a tree, the second time after trying to use bear spray on a wolf that was just under 50 feet away from her and then “darted in several times.”
Those are among the new details emerging about the tense encounter the 25-year-old stream surveyor had in a remote part of North-central Washington’s Okanogan County earlier this month.
The woman related them to WDFW Officer Justin Trautman during an interview following her extrication that day by a DNR helicopter crew.
Outside of some scrapes on her legs from clambering up and down the tree several times, she was not injured during the July 12 confrontation.
“(The woman) at no time stated that she feared for her life, but did state that she was afraid,” reads Trautman’s three-page after-action report, procured through a public disclosure request.
That and reports from two other WDFW officers add more information about the events leading up to and during the hectic hour as the woman awaited rescue while information rocketed between dispatchers and state, federal, county and search-and-rescue officials spread between the Okanogan and Methow Valleys and as far away as Moses Lake and Olympia.
INTERVIEWED IN A BREAK ROOM AT THE OMAK AIRPORT, the woman told Trautman that she was the state lead on a PIBO, or PacFish/InFish Biological Opinion Monitoring Program, project that surveys stream corridors to see if “aquatic conservation strategies can effectively maintain or restore the structure and function of riparian and aquatic systems.”
As she headed into the study area that day, she’d seen wolf tracks, and heard “barks and howls.”
The woman then saw a wolf cross a stream “and head in her direction where she had a face to face interaction with the wolf while on the phone with her boss,” Trautman’s report states.
Over the satellite phone, her supervisor told her to climb a tree, which she did.
But after 10 to 15 minutes, she climbed back down.
She then proceeded about 100 yards before she was “cut off by what she believed was the same wolf.”
“The wolf approached her as she took steps backwards and was very vocal towards the wolf,” Trautman’s report reads. “The wolf barked and growled at (the woman). (She) pulled out a can of bear spray and eventually deployed it but it was not able to reach the wolf.”
“(The woman) stated that the wolf was approximately 15 meters away when the interaction started. (She) stated that after she deployed the pepper spray in a quick warning type deployment the wolf darted in several times,” the officer writes.
Screaming at the wolf led it to back off and she climbed back up the tree again, the report says.
She told Trautman that the “interaction” lasted half a minute.
The woman then called her boss back and said she didn’t believe she would be able to leave the scene by herself.
As she waited for help she saw the wolf howl several times “in the distance,” Trautman’s report states.
When they reached her location, DNR pilot Devin Gooch and crewmember Matthew Harris saw two running wolves, they told Trautman during the interview.
QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN RAISED ABOUT the reactions three WDFW staffers — Trautman, a conflict specialist and a wolf biologist — had in the initial minutes of the incident not to send a chopper and instead hike to the scene on foot, an estimated two- or three-hour undertaking.
In a Capital Pressarticle out two weeks ago, it was couched as due to the woman’s relative safety in the tree out of immediate danger, and the federally listed status of wolves in that part of Washington.
Trautman’s impetus appears to have also been partially based on his knowledge of the lay of the land and its lack of suitability for landing a helicopter, records show.
There was some confusion about the Forest Service having a researcher in the area of a known wolf den as well.
Ultimately WDFW acknowledged the hesitation was wrong.
“To tell the helicopter not to go was not the right call, and we have to own that,” agency wolf policy lead Donny Martorello told Press reporter Don Jenkins. “The right call was to send the helicopter. It goes without saying we value human life over everything else.”
In a subsequent editorial, the Press said that with “two wolves from the Loup Loup pack that seemed intent on making her lunch,” WDFW had flubbed the incident:
We can’t imagine that these experts really thought through the possible consequences for the young woman had it gone wrong, or considered the potential public relations disaster this episode presented.
How could they possibly spin leaving this woman clutching a tree for dear life for three hours while wolves circled below? And what did they think the optics would be if she lost her grip or otherwise made contact before rescuers arrived?
However, as the events were unfolding, public records show that other WDFW officers were in fact working to get a bird to the scene.
Officer Jason Day was off duty at his home near Carlton at the time when he independently learned of the situation from county search-and-rescue coordinator Rick Avery.
Day got in touch with Forest Service officer Dave Graves who told him there was a helicopter available at the Winthrop smoke jumper base, so he called his supervisor Sgt. Chris Busching in Moses Lake to request it be used.
“Yes! Yes! Absolutely,” Busching replied, Day’s report states.
Shortly afterward, however, it was learned that that aircraft was in fact a fixed-wing plane, so Day and Graves continued their search before Day learned from Avery that a helicopter was on the way and then from he and Graves that the woman had been picked up.
Sgt. Dan Christensen, the Okanogan County detachment lead, was in Olympia when he got a call from Trautman apprising him of the situation. The officer told him it might not be possible to land a chopper, but Christensen told Trautman “to contact DNR and send them in to get the researcher.”
Meanwhile, USFS and DNR had OKed a chopper to go in, according to the Capital Press, with DNR dispatcher Jill Jones arguing to Trautman that her department was “more concerned for [the woman’s] life than the [federally] listed animal” and it wasn’t clear how strong the tree was or how long she could hold out in it.
Reporter Jenkins wrote that according to dispatch logs, at one point DNR was going to fly into the hills anyway and “deal with aftermath of WDFW later.”
Inside the Natural Resources Building where both agencies are headquartered at the state capitol, DNR supervisor Chuck Turley went to WDFW’s Martorello to say he wanted to send the chopper, and so Martorello got him on the telephone with lead USFWS carnivore biologist Gregg Kurz.
Wolves in the western two-thirds of the state, including that part of Okanogan County where the encounter occurred, are still federally listed. USFWS is the lead agency there and works in cooperation with WDFW to manage the species.
After a brief explanation of the situation, Kurz told Turley and Martorello, “‘Absolutely’ (use the helicopter). ‘Human safety comes first,'” recalled USFWS spokesperson Ann Froschauer, who was sitting next to Kurz during the call. “That decision on our end was immediate.”
Fourteen minutes after it took off from Omak, DNR’s flight crew reached the woman’s location.
ULTIMATELY, THIS WILL ALL GO DOWN AS ANOTHER learning moment — for the woman, the myriad government agencies and the public at large.
While we’re now a decade into the recolonization of wolves in Washington, we’re still pretty new at all of this and it’s hard to predict every situation that will occur.
But it’s also at least the second involving a Forest Service employee. In that one, which occurred south of Republic in 2012, a surveyor’s dog was injured by two wolves.
This latest is a reminder to all who roam the wilds — hunters, anglers, hikers, forest workers, horsepackers, prospectors, mushroom pickers, dog walkers, etc., etc., etc. — to be aware of what to do if they encounter a wolf or wolves.
There’s no way that WDFW is going to share GPS data with us and it’s impossible to predict where uncollared dispersers might have denned up and chosen rendezvous sites, but precautions for being where wolves (or any big predators, for that matter) are or could be include being aware of your surroundings, going with multiple people, and carrying bear spray and/or a gun.
Following a 2011 incident on the divide between Lake Chelan and the Twisp River Valley, no less of a wolf expert than Carter Niemeyer told me it would have been wise of the hunter to have fired a shot in two wolves’ direction.
“No harm in teaching wolves to be wild and preventing any possible habituation behavior from developing,” Niemeyer said.
As Sgt. Christensen also noted in his report, “Under the ESA threats to a human allow for self-defense actions.”
If you feel your life is threatened and you act lethally, be prepared to answer questions as well as face public fallout from people who were not in your boots at the time but consider themselves to be wolf experts nonetheless.
In this latest case, the Loup Loup Pack appears to have been defending its pups, trying to alter the woman’s course away from the rendezvous site, not so much looking for lunch, as Capital Press editorial writers would have it.
“She took many of the right actions,” Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spokesperson Debbie Kelly told Northwest Sportsman. “She maybe could have left the area a little sooner.”
Who am I to judge, but she probably should have stayed parked in the tree too.
Efforts by Trautman to reach her satellite phone and further assess her situation were complicated by wrong numbers initially passed along by USFS and the fact that she had turned the device off to conserve battery power.
Both Kelly and USFWS’s Froschauer said the woman actually expected that a crew was going to hike to her location.
That a chopper came instead was “a bit of a surprise” for her, said Kelly.
While WDFW had informed local USFS officials about the location of the Loup Loup Pack’s den, a half mile from the rendezvous site, the woman did not know about it nor did she check with rangers before she’d headed afield that day, according to another Capital Press article.
Kelly said that some Forest Service employees such as wildlife biologists and those who work on grazing permits generally would “have a high level of knowledge about” wolves and den locations, but couldn’t say if that was broadly known among others in the district.
She said that field staffers do receive training for working in areas where large carnivores occur — pretty much the entire national forest.
“This employee received a good level of training. She was certified to carry bear spray,” Kelly said.
While the likelihood of predators like wolves attacking a person is pretty low, it is also not zero, as we saw with May’s fatal cougar attack.
They’re wild animals. Under sustained stress, human decision making can get worse.
My intention here is not to cause wolf hysteria but to continue to document all that comes with wolves resettling in Washington.
I think it’s useful to repeat the core of this incident, as summarized by WDFW Officer Day after Trautman called him following the airport interviews:
“The wolf bluff charged several times before the reporting party climbed a tree for safety,” Day wrote. “The wolf left. After approximately fifteen minutes, she exited the tree and attempted to leave. A wolf returned and again repeatedly charged, stopped short, and veered off. The reporting party went back up the tree and stayed there till extraction.”
Those who know wolves best, who yearn to have close encounters with wolves, are leading wolf tours, or relating their own zen moments near dens or rendezvous sites would do well to consider this before giving others only half paying attention the impression that everything around wolves is perfectly safe, lest another helicopter have to be scrambled.