By Josh Magill
The slaughter of a wolf pack by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to assuage concerns of local cattle ranchers in the north-central section of the state has triggered an enormous political backlash.
At the center of the controversy is Bill McIrvin, co-owner of the Diamond M Ranch in Colville, Washington.
An online petition dubbed “Remove Bill McIrvin’s Herd from Public Land” was created by outraged folks after the late September cull of eight wolves, called the Wedge Pack, in northeast Washington. McIrvin, with his family, owns and operates the Diamond M Ranch that urged Washington’s Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDF&W) to eradicate the cattle-hungry wolf pack. The McIrvins claim that up to 40 calves and cattle have been attacked or killed by the wolves since 2007.
The petition has garnered just more than 100 electronic signatures, but does not have much hope of actually ending the public land lease the ranch has to graze their livestock. But it isn’t the petition McIrvin is worried about.
McIrvin explained to NBC News that he believes groups with “a radical environmental agenda” are conspiring to introduce gray wolves in order “to take our (grazing) lease from us.”
“We have the right to protect our property,” McIrvin said, adding that he considered the wildlife department “a rogue government agency” that was essentially saying “we got to sit back and do nothing while the wolves kill our livestock.”
Conservation Northwest, a group who is working with the state, reluctantly agreed that killing the pack was best for long-term recovery of gray wolves in the wild.
But director Mitch Friedman told NBC News that McIrvin “has total responsibility for the problem” for not being as cooperative as other ranchers with programs aimed at keeping cattle and wolves apart.
The wildlife department “has not been as firm as it needed to be,” Friedman added, considering McIrvin’s cattle graze on public land.
At a public hearing held by the WDF&W in early October, many people voiced concerns about why non-lethal methods were not used sooner or fully to deter the wolves. McIrvin spoke out saying that his ranch had done everything the WDF&W had suggested “except for a range-riding program and we have five riders of our own who do it very well.”
“We refused compensation for our killed stock because it would look like it was all right if the wolves ate our cattle as long as we got compensated,” added McIrvin. “It’s not all right. Half of the cattle were killed on our private ground, not on public land. Also, the game in the Wedge area is decimated. There’s bears, cougars and wolves and there’s no game base left. We need regional delisting.”
However, emotions continue to run high over the decision and the debate over wolf management in Washington will likely remain intense.
“We know these issues spark strong feelings among Washington residents across the state, which is why we are committed to conducting our business openly and transparently,” said WDF&W Director Phil Anderson.
The level of pressure on state wildlife managers has caused such blowback that calling the main number for the WDF&W results in a tell-tale recording: “If you’re calling regarding the Wedge Wolf Pack, please press # or the number sign now.”
John Marzluff, professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington, says the intensity of emotion from folks on both sides of the issue is to be expected.
“I think we have deep-seated feelings about wolves for the same reason we have them about crows and ravens,” says Marzluff. “These animals all lived close with us [earlier in our history]. As we evolved, they scavenged with us.”
“Often when we see wolves or ravens or crows, they are around the dead,” adds Marzluff. “Seeing this would be a powerful motivator and it would have scared early people. Now, we know these animals are not a menace to humans, but our culture is filled with the images of them as beasts. Culture is hard to shake and it causes us to see wolves in a way that is not real. We see them as we have learned about them, as a challenge to our existence.”
In an Oct 29 Seattle Times editorial, Marzluff went further saying he felt the removal of the Wedge pack “was an avoidable response to disingenuous ranchers who took advantage of the unwillingness of conservation agencies and advocacy groups to spend political capital.”
Marzluff disputes the notion that the Diamond M Ranch engaged all deterrent methods and says ranchers using public lands to graze that do not employ all methods should be penalized, rather than “squandering public funds.”
The professor says that humans haven’t learned from past mistakes with wolf packs and should change our tactics to see a better result.
“Our future holds more conflicts with wildlife,” states Marzluff in his editorial. “By learning to live with other forms of life, even those our ancestors reviled, we not only improve our ecosystem’s resilience – we show our uniqueness as a species.”
A long road awaits Washington on this topic, and it looks as though Washington will be on the front lines of the issue in the Pacific Northwest.
© 2012 Josh Magill