SPOKANE -- It's no surprise to rancher Len McIrvin that a wolf pack preyed on his cattle.
"Wolves do what wolves do," McIrvin said. "They have always been killers."
McIrvin estimates the Wedge Pack of wolves has killed between 40 and 50 head of cattle on his Diamond M Ranch, near the Canadian border north of Kettle Falls in northeastern Washington. That prompted a huge effort by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to wipe out the pack, less than a year after adopting a plan to recover wolf populations in the state.
The Wedge Pack needed to be wiped out because the wolves appeared to have switched from preying on deer, elk and moose and instead were focusing on cattle, state officials said. The expensive hunting effort -- which included shooting wolves from helicopters -- concluded last week.
"Of course it's very bittersweet," said Dave Ware, game division manager for the agency. "We are in the first year of implementing our plan and to have this level of conflict with a rancher was unacceptable."
The hunt was expensive, although the costs have not been tallied yet, Ware said. They include four days of helicopter use, plus weeks of overtime for various state employees, Ware said. He said any future wolf hunts will probably not have to be on this scale.
The Wedge Pack of wolves, named for the area they inhabit along the Canadian border near Laurier, is one of an estimated 12 wolf packs in the state. It is the only one that was blamed for problems, said Mitch Friedman of the environmental group Conservation Northwest. "This rancher has politicized the situation, while many other ranchers recognize that wolves are part of the landscape," Friedman contended.
While wolves will always get a few cattle, a problem of this scale is likely to be rare, Friedman said.
But McIrvin said the efforts to re-establish wolves in Washington have gone too far. "You can always have a wolf or two come into an area and it's no big deal," he said. "But we have so many packs and so many wolves."
The state announced in late September that the entire pack would be eliminated. But tracking the wolves proved difficult, even as cattle losses piled up.
"They kill from midnight to 2 or 3 in the morning," McIrvin said. "You don't see them in the daytime."
Teams of hunters worked round the clock, but most of the pack remained at large until a helicopter was brought in. Then it took only a few days to wipe out the pack, including the alpha male, officials said.
Fish and Wildlife director Phil Anderson said the effort was necessary. "Lethal removal will remain a wolf management option, but we will use it only as a last resort," he said. "We are committed to the recovery and sustainability of the gray wolf in Washington, and its numbers are increasing rapidly."
Friedman said that after spending 25 years working to recover wolves in the state, he was grief-stricken by the elimination of the pack. "The Wedge Pack experience has been hard on everybody, which makes it difficult but necessary to look forward," said Conservation Northwest. "We want to see commitments from the state and cattlemen to expand early use of nonlethal efforts so we don't have to go through this again."
Gray wolves were eliminated by hunters as a breeding species in Washington by the 1930s, but they began returning to the state from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia in the mid-2000s. The first confirmed pack was found in 2008. They are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and in the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.
Ware said Washington is still learning how to manage wolves, in part by studying what states like Idaho and Wyoming have done.
In the case of the Wedge Pack, the terrain is so mountainous and heavily forested that it was difficult to keep wolves and cattle separated, Ware said. Most wolf packs are operating in more open country, he said.
"We are pretty surprised with how quickly we got there," he said of the need to eliminate the pack. "We are one year into implementing our plan and already we have a worst-case scenario."
But conflicts between cattle and wolves occur in all the states where the animals are present, Ware said. Government agencies must not be perceived as unwilling to act when wolves begin preying on cattle. "The Wedge is probably the poster child for where you could expect problems," he said.