Finally, the plan called for increasingly aggressive actions by the wildlife agency toward wolves in an area whenever killings of livestock began: at first, trapping and relocating wolf packs when other measures didn’t work. And if all else failed, the plan recommended killing wolves.
So far, wolves have done well in Washington. There are now 206 animals confirmed in the state, and likely more, wildlife officials say. The population has increased by about 25 percent annually since the wolves first arrived. And these wolves sometimes do kill livestock: In 2021, for example, wolves killed five cows and injured eight more; in addition, two calves were considered “probable” wolf kills and six were considered injuries likely caused by wolves.
And, as elsewhere, people on both sides of the issue are unhappy with how the past dozen-plus years have played out.
“They told us, ‘Wolves don’t kill cattle,”’ says Scott Nielsen, president of Steven County’s Cattlemen’s Association, speaking of meetings ranchers had with WDFW back in the mid 2000s. Despite what he claims ranchers were told, he and others braced for wolves to begin preying on their livestock. Ranchers felt “betrayed,” he told me one fall day in 2020 between sips of lemonade at TJ’s Tavern, a local hangout in Kettle Falls, 10 miles up the road from Colville that’s famous for its Friday night prime rib dinners welcoming “recovering vegetarians.”
He scoffs at the state’s plan to manage wolves. “They implemented a wolf plan we didn’t want, and didn’t think would work, and now it’s not working,” says Nielsen. And, he claims, as ungulate populations decline in the state, cattle and sheep are sitting ducks for them to eat.
Ben Maletzke, the agency’s wolf specialist, acknowledges that frustration. Wolves sometimes kill livestock despite best efforts to keep the two apart, Maletzke says. And sometimes, he adds, ranchers feel the state doesn’t move fast enough to kill offending wolves.
Overall, though, wolves pose little threat to livestock compared to other natural hazards. A USDA report found that in one year, almost 98 percent of deaths in adult cattle were unrelated to predators. To ranchers, however, the wolf is simply one more issue on a long list of challenges that livestock producers now face, from drought and market fluctuations to competition from Brazilian beef. And a wolf in the pasture strikes at something deeper, too. For most, ranching isn’t just a job but a way of life, one often passed down from father to son or daughter. And so, ranchers will say they don’t work from sunup to sundown, in all kinds of conditions, so that the product of their work can be eaten by a wolf. To some extent the antipathy to wolves, and current wolf management, is less about money than about cultural self-determination. Which also explains why they are more likely to trust their fellow ranchers, and be more wary of government.