More Details Emerge On Latest WA Wolf Kill Case

UPDATE: FEB. 26, 2011: The Wenatchee World has more details on the case.

It’s been a year and a half or so since the skinned carcass of a male wolf was discovered in extreme eastern Skagit County, but despite “a number of people aware of the poaching,” wildlife investigators are struggling to make a case.

Mike Cenci, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife Enforcement Division’s deputy chief, couldn’t provide many details about the investigation, but hopes that those who know about it step forward with tips.

“We’ve had some leads, and they’ve been helpful, but we’d appreciate more information if people have it,” he says.

Cenci has been extremely cagey about the case since I first learned of it last summer. It became public earlier this week with an article in the Methow Valley News.

The investigation began in fall 2009 with a phone call from a citizen. His officers went to the scene at or near Rainy Pass on Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, and found where the carcass had been “dumped.”

“It had been there for some time,” Cenci says.

The hide had been removed, maggots were crawling around the body and muscle tissue, and there was a bullet hole in it.

Cenci says he can say for sure that it was a wolf and not a hybrid or other canine.

The animal’s age is unclear, and so is where it may have come from.

“The evidence we have so far is that it came from Eastern Washington,” Cenci says.

That’s where the state’s two known and a couple suspected packs exist, but he wouldn’t detail more.

This case would raise the number of wolves known to have been killed in the region over the past few years to at least two, and possibly as many as four.

Late March 2009 news articles detail the alleged killing of one member of the Lookout Pack by a Twisp man and the attempted shipping of its pelt to Canada; Cenci adds that there are indications that at least one other wolf was also killed in the case. No charges have been filed, but an assistant to the U.S. Attorney in Spokane said it was still active, according to a Methow Valley News article last week.

In the same article, a pair of wildlife biologists voice their opinions that the disappearance of the Lookout’s alpha female last May was the result of foul play.

However, Cenci says that his officers are not investigating it.

Word of the newest poaching came during a very busy couple of weeks of wolf news in the West, including dueling delisting bills in Congress, sparring hunting groups in Montana, efforts to reduce wolf numbers on both sides of the Bitterroots, and Governor Schweitzer’s letter to the Secretary of the Interior that he was directing game wardens not to investigate wolf killings by ranchers north of I-90.

“Wolves are boring,” notes Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rockies in Helena. “The fascinating thing is the human reactions … Right now it’s at a fevered pitch.”

Back in Washington, the killings illustrate more clearly the problem that wolves will have re-establishing themselves in the state, both in terms of core refuge and local tolerance.

“Bottom line, people will decide where wolves live and where they don’t,” says Bangs.

To explain wolf survival to me this morning, he used an archery analogy — he’s a bowhunter himself — and the greater Yellowstone area.

He says that in the “bull’s eye” core of their habitat — the famed national park where wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s — 80 percent of wolves survive each year.

In the next ring out — the park’s edges, surrounding wildernesses and national forest lands — it dips to 70 percent.

The next ring — public lands extensively used for cattle grazing and a bit of private land — it drops to 60 percent.

In the fourth ring — which includes private lands such as ranches as well as more roaded public lands — it drops to 50 percent, and in the one beyond that, survival is 40 percent, he says.

At that level, “You don’t have packs persisting,” Bangs says.

The more open the habitat, the fewer the trees, the more roaded and private it is, the less chance wolves have of living very long.

He adds that 85 percent of wolves die by human hands — poaching, livestock damage control and collisions.

Bangs uses another metaphor to illustrate the persistence of packs in that fifth ring: “little lights blinking on and off.”

It’s debatable what ring Washington’s North Cascades represent.

In summer, it could be the bull’s eye. There are something like 2.5 million acres, or 4,000 square miles, of mountainous, forested wilderness or near wilderness from the Canadian border south to Stevens Pass, and from Mt. Baker east to Loomis, all of it crossed by just a single two-lane state route, Highway 20.

In winter, the heights are snowed in, driving the deer herds into the settled Methow and Okanogan Valleys and even to the edge of the Columbia River further south — country that might be typified as the outer rings.

Bangs points out that wolves have pushed out of the Rockies onto Montana’s eastern prairies for 50 years but packs have yet to persist there.

“Why? Illegal killing and control,” he says. “In some instances, areas are kept wolf-free through illegal killing and control.”

At the moment, biologists, and apparently a film crew from the British Broadcasting Company, are monitoring whether the two or three wolves left in the Lookout Pack — the state’s first breeding pair in 70 years, and at one time numbering as many as ten — keep the lights on, or wink out.

Online, initial word of the new killing sparked an array of emotions.

“The presence of wolves in Washington is very polarizing,” acknowledges Cenci. “Our officers don’t pick and choose which species to protect. They’re sworn to protect all, and we’re going to do that.”

For now, he’s hoping someone comes forward and talks.

“We know a lot of people are aware of the poaching,” Cenci says, and pointing to handsome permit point rewards and cash for information that may lead to an arrest, adds, “If someone wants to become a confidential witness, there are ways to reach us.”

For Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest, which has helped WDFW monitor the pack and other animals in the North Cascades, the killing is doubly troubling.

“And not just as a conservation setback for a fragile wolf population. I wonder if we, as a hunting community, have slacked off a bit in how we react to poachers. Whoever did this is as bad as any elk spree killer. I hope he is caught and made to pay,” he says.

According to WDFW’s draft wolf management plan, penalties for killing a state endangered species range up to $5,000 and/or a year in jail while federal penalties range up to $100,000 and a year in jail.

WDFW’s poaching tip hotline is (877) 933-9847.

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