When The BBC Came Looking For Wolves

CAMERA CREW FINDS FEW AS POACHING, UNDERRECOGNIZED HABITAT ISSUES TAKE TOLL ON WASHINGTON’S FIRST PACK IN 70 YEARS.

Editor’s note: This is an updated and expanded version of an article which originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine. 

by Andy Walgamott

CARLTON, Wash.–It’s a very long way from Broadcast House in Southwest England to the Methow, but this past February, the BBC showed up in this North-central Washington valley.

Camped out up a cold, snowy gulch, the smoky-smelling camera crew ran around in a rented diesel pickup for a month filming a documentary about the local wolves.

That would be the Lookout Pack – or whatever’s left of it anyway.

At one point in summer 2008, it numbered ten, setting off alarm bells among hunters, myself included, who prize the valley’s mule deer herd.

It’s unclear exactly how many pack members remain, but Duane Kikendall saw two out his front window Feb. 26. That was three days after the BBC paid him a morning visit at his house in Carlton, a tiny burg along Highway 153 whose claim to fame is the fly pattern known as the Carlton General.

Practically every morning at first light, the 76-year-old, fourth-generation valley resident and old horse trainer picks up a pair of high-powered binoculars and scans a mountain just to the west.

“That’s our entertainment – watching the hillside,” says Kikendall, who lives with his wife, Betty and dog, Jack, and says that otherwise he’s just “sitting around waiting to die.”

A couple neighbors watch from their houses too, including Max Judd, who first spotted wolves there in spring 2008.

Kikendall says his view includes a 2-mile swath of an open, east-facing pine- and sage-dotted slope that muleys frequent. Whether they’re bunched up in odd spots or scattered tells him if there are wolves actively hunting.

An even better sign might be carrion eaters like bald and golden eagles, ravens and magpies.

“They know even before there’s a kill,” he says.

Once he watched three eagles land in a tree and wait as a wolf took the measure of a little deer herd.

“She sorted them out just like a damn sheepdog until she finally got the one she wanted – it must’ve been more tender,” Kikendall recalls.

Then the hunt was on for the pack.

“They actually herded that deer into the brush. I didn’t see them make the kill, but it didn’t come out. It’s a small piece of brush, so I would have seen it,” he says.

OVER THE PAST TWO WINTERS, Kikendall has kept a “wolf diary,” and his 3,750-plus words provide a record of the pack on part of its winter ground. (The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s field monitoring season runs from April into early fall.)

Largely written in an even tone, it details the wolves “playing grab ass,” their hierarchy, how nervous the local coyotes are these days, and how a siren one morning set them to howling.

Kikendall took out his predator call and howled back, but was spurned.

According to his notes, the wolves sometimes make just one showing a month, other times six or seven. He reports seeing them tree a cougar, hunt gophers and in late December 2009 watched as many as seven wolves at once – a number which matches the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s official estimate at the end of that year.

Known online as Idabooner, he’s posted some excerpts of his journal (see below ) at Hunting-Washington where wolves are a hot topic. Some can’t wait to follow up on his sightings with a gun; some have been riveted – “my heart was pounding in my chest,” said one reader.

He himself calls the scenes “amazing” and “fascinating.”

But make no mistake: Duane Kikendall won’t be hugging these wolves anytime soon.

He worries that his county is filling up with them. Like some sportsmen he doesn’t have much faith in biologists’ estimates, and he’s heard the rumor the wolves had a helping hand arriving in the valley.

He also worries their presence could restrict coyote hunting. While headed into the Pasayten during a flurry of suspected wolf activity in the 1990s, he says he was told, “Don’t shoot any coyotes.”

Songdogs can be hell on fawns and sheep, and their winter coats can bring in some money.

(Coyote hunting remains open; the rules pamphlet points out differences between the species, just as it does for black bears and Endangered Species Act-listed grizzly bears.)

Kikendall terms the wolves’ coming an “invasion,” and says he told the BBC interviewer that “some kind of control” is needed to keep their numbers in check.

POPULATION CONTROL is already happening naturally and unnaturally – never mind the hopes of pro-wolfers or federal penalties of up to $100,000, a year in jail and civil fines for killing ESA animals.

The Lookout’s alpha female is known to have had a total of 10 pups in 2008 and 2009. It was observed by Kikendall in a very pregnant state last spring, and also may have thrown a litter in 2007 based on reports of six to nine wolves observed in the region that summer and winter.

LOOKOUT PACK RANGE (GRAY) SUPERIMPOSED OVER PUBLIC LANDS MAP OF OKANOGAN COUNTY. CARLTON IS NEAR THE SOUTHEASTERN TIP OF THE GRAY AREA. (USFWS; DOE)

And while there have been sightings all over the Methow – Mazama, War Creek, Libby Creek, Elbow Canyon, Benson Creek, Chewack, Texas Creek – in March, official numbers from the Feds shrank the pack to a minimum of two or three at the end of 2010.

Granted, 50 percent of wolf pups die annually and 10 percent of adults are difficult-to-count loners – some of the bitch’s broods may have just dispersed to happier hunting grounds (UPDATE: DNA evidence ties a lactating female wolf captured in summer 2011 60 air miles south-southwest to the Lookout wolves) – but what the pack’s apparent lack of traction says about the quality of wolf habitat and prey availability in the 350- to 400-square-mile territory it occupies on the west side of the upper Methow Valley and northern end of Sawtooth Ridge is an open question.

Another is, just how many wolves are being illegally killed?

In late March 2009, news broke that at least two had been allegedly poached. The case began when shipping agents at the Omak Walmart called the cops about a leaky package that, upon opening, was discovered to contain a bloody wolf pelt. It was traced back to a Twisp family, a member of whom confessed to killing a wolf, say police. The suspect said he shot it after it became entangled in a barbed wire fence; according to an affidavit, a photo indicates that it may have actually been caught in an illegal leghold trap. Federal charges have yet to be filed, but the possibility remains open, says the U.S. attorney’s office in Spokane, according to the local paper.

In fall 2009, it’s suspected that a pair of Westside men shot another wolf at the extreme northern end of the pack’s range, took it home and then dumped the skinned carcass in the upper Skagit Valley. It’s considered a target of opportunity rather than part of a concerted effort to kill off the Methow’s wolves, but word of it sparked applause from a ranch family elsewhere in the region.

Then, in May 2010, the alpha female suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Two local biologists think it was shot, but there’s no crime scene, tips or anything to follow up on.

“She’s gone. We don’t know why. That’s the extent of the investigation,” says WDFW’s Sgt. Jim Brown, chief game warden for Okanogan County.

The wolf could have died on its own. Way back at its July 2008 capture, it and its mate were aged at “no less than 7 or 8 years old,” “gummers,” says Carter Niemeyer, the retired federal biologist who trapped them for WDFW.

But Brown and others are suspicious about why the collar never broadcast a special mortality signal. Maybe the battery went dead, but that doesn’t match up with how visible the animal was at the time, Brown says.

In the face of at least three poachings – maybe even more than four, one senior state law enforcement official says – Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest teamed up with WDFW to offer more “robust” rewards for information on illegal kills. The agency is now offering up to $7,500 for info that leads to convictions in gray wolf kill cases (as well as $3,000 for “egregious” shootings of deer and elk). Previously only $500 was offered.

THERE ARE SEVERAL self-appointed wolf experts banging the war drums around the region these days, and then there’s Ed Bangs. Based in Helena, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rockies has been working with and managing the species almost longer than I’ve been alive. I asked him about the odds that so many wolves from such a tiny population would be killed in such a relatively short period.

A bowhunter, Bangs used an archery analogy to explain annual wolf survival in 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 survive each year.

In the next ring out – the park’s edges, surrounding wildernesses and national forest – it dips to 70 percent. The next ring – public lands extensively used for grazing and a bit of private land – it declines to 60 percent.

In the fourth ring – which includes 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.

It’s debatable what ring the Methow and the rest of Washington’s North Cascades represent for wolves – a handful of computer models disagree – but by summer, it could be the bull’s eye or next level out. There is something like 2.5 million acres, or 4,000 square miles, of mountainous, forested wilderness, near wilderness and national park in the 70 miles from the Canadian border south to Highway 2 and 90 miles from Mt. Baker east to Loomis. Crossed by just a single, seasonal two-lane state route, there are, at most, a dozen active grazing allotments – and none with sheep.

Then again, it’s also a world of rock, which is tough to digest unless you’re a lichen.

And in winter, the heights are heap deep in Cascade concrete, driving the deer herds towards the settled Methow and Okanogan Valleys and even to the edge of the Columbia River further south – country more like the outer rings.

WASHINGTON’S POTENTIAL WOLF HABITAT How suitable is Washington for wolves? Good question. Until they’re settled in and show biologists, it’s an academic exercise. Computer modeling that variously factored in prey and human density, land cover, livestock, public lands and habitat linkages spit out a range of estimates. In the first map (far left), gray shading across 41,000 square miles of the state represent suitable habitat while the second map suggests 26,700 square miles are about 50 percent habitable. Dark gray in the third map shows 19,000 square miles, mostly public land. In the fourth, which includes linkages to suitable habitats outside Washington, pink and red areas are considered “sinks” – where resident packs would have a hard time lasting long – while green and dark green represent areas that might support enough that subadults could disperse from their parents. Yellow represents low potential for wolves. (WDFW)

Bangs uses another metaphor to illustrate the persistence of packs in the fifth ring – “little lights blinking on and off” – and points out that wolves have pushed out of the Rockies onto Montana’s open, eastern prairies for 50 years but packs have yet to persist there.

“Why? Illegal killing and (agency) control (for livestock depredations),” he says. “In some instances, areas are kept wolf-free through illegal killing and control.”

While much of the angst over state wolf management in the Northern Rockies leading up to Congressional delisting earlier this spring focused on public hunting, what’s not so well known is that since 1984, 1,517 problem wolves have been legally killed by government agencies and ranchers protecting their stock, says Bangs.

And that’s just half the tally.

“There’s probably been 1,500 wolves illegally killed in the last 25 years,” Bangs adds.

So far in the North Cascades – the gateway to the rest of the range and Western Washington for wolves – the poachers are ahead of the government.

SGT. JIM BROWN STANDS on the thin tan line trying to keep the lights on for Canis lupus in Okanogan County, in which the Methow Valley is located.

“Wolves are here to stay,” he says, a line that echoes throughout WDFW.

SGT. JIM BROWN. (WDFW)

That said, Brown isn’t too excited about los lobos. There’s the politics and overheated emotions, not to mention poaching and dead farm animals.

So far in his beat only one of the four horsemen has yet to rear its head. He says people go on and on about pet and livestock kills, but there’s never any evidence.

Domestic dogs running deer against orchard fences – that’s another story.

Brown is also a sportsman, and after spending two hours with the BBC’s film crew, believes the documentary will come off as anti-hunting.

“They are going at it clearly from a ‘Leave the wolves alone, they have a right to be here’ standpoint,” Brown says.

The crew wanted to go bust someone poaching a wolf. Instead, he took them to Walmart.

There he showed them the surveillance cameras that recorded the license plate of the woman who allegedly dropped the pelt package off, evidence that helped jump start the case.

Brown felt like the interviewer was trying to pigeonhole him with questions.

“They didn’t like that I kept bringing up the extremes on both sides,” he says.

Who knows how the material will be edited, but the game warden worries that he might become associated with a pro-wolf slant.

“I told them that people may be extreme in their views, but they are concerned. Whether those are valid is another thing, but you can’t dismiss their fears,” he says.

It’s not clear why the BBC chose to focus on the Methow and the Lookout Pack. Wolf recovery is not a new story in the region, and there just aren’t that many animals in the valley. Word is that the crew managed just one shot of two wolves over a month.

But that rarity might be part of the story. Brown says they said it was because this pack is different from others. That is, it is isolated from the naturally recolonizing wolves of Northwest Montana and the reintroduced ones plunked down in Yellowstone and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s.

Two members of the film crew did not respond to emailed questions. A local newspaper editor who’d spoken with them said they were afraid of too much exposure, but would talk more after they finished filming this summer. And a representative of Conservation Northwest who was involved in the project said she’d promised to hold off on media and blogging until fall.

It’s not the only wolf show in progress. A Sandpoint, Idaho, man who predicts Washington “will be a biological desert in as little as 10 years,” is following up on his recently released production Yellowstone is Dead with a documentary “covering the corrupt wolf promoters of Washington” and says he will offer evidence of how wolves were planted in the Methow.

WE’LL SEE WHAT HE DRUMS UP, but in all likelihood, the species didn’t get there in a cage in the back of a greenie government biologist’s pickup, by parachute or in a Schwan’s delivery van as some want to believe, but by walking there on their own four feet.

We hunters and ranchers tend to massively underrate wolves’ true mobility, as if they’re homebodies and not like the migratory deer and elk they prey on. Certainly the moose that are now colonizing the western and southern edges of the Columbia Basin haven’t exactly had to thumb rides from WDFW’s Scott Fitkin, Paul Wik and Dave Volsen.

How far can wolves wander? This past January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a map that traced the seven-month walk of a yearling female. It was collared with a GPS tracking device in Southwest Montana and then traveled over 3,000 miles and across parts of five states before being found dead in Colorado.

(USFWS)

That’s roughly the pace of another dispersing female’s trek across Scandinavia. Scientists say it went a minimum of 6,000 miles – and possibly as many as 9,000 miles – between its den near Oslo and the Finnish-Russian border where it was killed 21 months later.

Those, of course, are the extremes, but a 1999 article in the Journal of Wildlife Management suggests that in areas of low pack density – such as central Scandinavia at the time – wolves may travel “excessive” distances to find mates, prey and habitat.

About 35 miles north of Carlton as the raven flies is the international border and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Encompassing the Similkameen, Okanagan and Kettle River watersheds, it’s the only region in the entire province without a wolf hunt because, well, there just haven’t been any to hunt.

That’s changing. Thirty miles beyond the border is the town of Princeton where a pair were shot not too long ago by a rancher, according to a provincial biologist.

He was not authorized to talk to the media (a government spokesman did not return my call), but he says that there’s a growing wolf population in the Okanagan. In 2007, it was estimated at six packs and 30 to 40 animals.

Since then, he’s been rounding up evidence on the population to kick start a hunt.

“Because predator seasons are so bleeping sensitive, I’ve had to put together lots of information” for headquarters and politicians to sign off on a season, he says. “This one catches the public’s eye.”

It will catch the eye of wolf watchers south of the border: Hunts may lead to even fewer dispersers crossing into Washington.

BACK IN CARLTON, after a month without a sighting, Duane Kikendall reported that a wolf wandered across the mountain the morning of March 29. He says it didn’t pay any attention to the 40 or so deer there at first, but then made a crafty charge. From his vantage point, it was unclear if it made a kill.

They say that just the mention of the word “wolf” creates its own sightings, but Kikendall tells me that he’s seen wolves off and on throughout his life in the valley. It may be surprising to some, but that’s what WDFW data also shows.

A 1995 paper from agency biologists confirms over a dozen and a half sightings in the Cascades and Pend Oreille County between just ’91 and ’95 as legit, and it terms more than 175 other reports between the mid-’70s and ’95 – including 35 in Okanogan County – as having a “high reliability.” The agency’s draft wolf management plan lists another 100 unconfirmed reports over the past 10 years.

WASHINGTON’S WOLF POPULATION
As of Dec. 31, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were a minimum of 18 or 19 wolves in three packs:
• 12 in the Diamond Pack of east-central Pend Oreille County — six adults and six pups
• Four in the Salmo Pack of extreme northern Pend Oreille County — three adults and one pup
• Two or three in the Lookout Pack of western Okanogan County — all adults
• In the Northern Rockies, for every 10 wolves in packs, there’s another wanderer, but in Washington, USFWS’s Ed Bangs thinks it’s probable there would be a slightly higher ratio of dispersers. A radio-collared yearling female from Oregon’s Imnaha Pack, OR-5, showed up in the eastern Blue Mountains in late January and there has been confirmed wolf activity elsewhere in Washington’s side of the range. On the north side of the Columbia Basin, Colville tribal biologists are awaiting DNA results from some canid poop found next to large tracks in the Sanpoil Valley last winter, and WDFW will follow up on reports in the Teanaway and North Cascades near Hozomeen this year.
The state’s end-of-2009 wolf population was estimated at a minimum of 12 in two packs, Diamond and Lookout.

The bottom line is, wolves have been invading/recolonizing Washington in ones, twos, threes for decades, but until the late 2000s it never amounted to a hill of beans. When the Lookout Pack shacked up, it fundamentally changed the alphas’ behavior. Before, they could roam at will, picking off a deer in this valley, a beaver in the next. But with pups to feed, they inextricably tied themselves to the muley herd, which itself is bound to the Methow Valley floor because of winter snows.

Doing so made them far more visible.

“People want to think of wolves as a symbol of wilderness and remoteness,” says John Rohrer, a local U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, “but (in winter and spring) they’re right outside people’s doors.”

That brought to the valley the great sociological experiment that is the Wolf Wars: the angst, the rah-rahing, the rumor mongering – and the poaching.

It has also made more clear how difficult it may be for wolves to spread into the western two-thirds of Washington on their own — required to meet the draft plan’s proposed recovery goals — and a prospect that makes one WDFW biologist shift uneasily in his chair because it raises the specter of the expensive, time-consuming, divisive, bound-to-be-litigious process that would be translocation — moving the species around inside the state to reach those benchmarks.

An alternative idea was brought up during public comment on the wolf plan. A wildlife biologist at a different state agency suggested that rather than basing recovery on packs occurring across most of Washington, base it on populations in just the eastern third of the state, the area they’re now federally delisted and where packs from Idaho, Oregon and BC are expanding into.

“If statewide recovery is necessary before any management can occur, then we have no business hunting moose or bighorn sheep until they have established populations in all suitable habitat,” wrote Scott Fisher at the Department of Natural Resources.

The USFWS is currently mulling whether wolves in the western two-thirds of the state, such as the Lookout Pack, should be included in the delisted Northern Rocky Mountains population, or be its own distinct segment. A decision is expected by the end of the year.

WHO KNOWS, maybe another pack will appear in the Methow – the latest rumor is five were seen up Cow Creek, east of Carlton ­– but with how few BBC’s crew found on their first trip, perhaps they will have to go to another part of the state this summer to find more.

Or save the show by focusing on another local critter on the rebound, say wolverines or lynx.

Or maybe it’s as Ed Bangs says: “Wolves are boring. The fascinating thing is the human reactions.”

Book Review: THE MAN WHO CRIED WOLF MODERATION!

Carter Niemeyer has killed more wolves in the Lower 48 – including one of the most famous, Alabaster of the Whitehawks – than almost all of us will ever see in our lives, and he’s on good speaking terms with some of the folks at Defenders of Wildlife.

He wonders why we brought wolves back to this country if all we’re going to do is shoot them, and says fair-chase hunts should be allowed.

After necropsying dead livestock, he’s had to tell ranchers throughout the Northern Rockies that wolves had nothing to do with why some of their cows, calves, sheep and lambs have died, and counts some of them among his friends.

He’s hailed as a wolf advocate in headlines these days, and he tells wolf advocates that it’s time to move on, the species is recovered.

So, what, exactly, is a sportsman to make of Niemeyer, the author of the recently self-published memoir Wolfer?

As a central character in the Wolf Wars, he’s neither a hugger nor a hater. Rather, Niemeyer bucks the era’s you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality and represents gray, calling bullshit on everybody’s fairy tales.

“Wolves aren’t as bad as we feared, or as good as we hoped,” he says to all comers.

Wolfer is a tale any Northwest sportsman could thoroughly enjoy – if only wolves weren’t involved.

It’s about a work life lived outdoors, detailing how a kid from Iowa who started out collecting nickel bounties on gophers ended up working as a federal trapper in Montana. There he kills thousands of coyotes and foxes as well as successfully relocates 149 golden eagles that had been pestering lambs. In the mid-1980s, when wolves begin filtering into Montana from Canada, he’s tasked by his bosses at USDA Wildlife Services/Animal Damage Control to deal with them.

It’s full of amusing anecdotes – Niemeyer gives his pet porcupine an enema, grinds up whole critters for his super-secret trapping scent, and wins a wine-soaked wolf-skinning contest to establish his bona fides with Canadian fur trappers who will help him bring wolves back to Yellowstone and Central Idaho.

My favorite bit is when his second wife wonders how on earth he could shoot hummingbirds as a boy. It was pretty tough, he replies, because they’re so dang small – a response that earns him a look that has been flashed a time or three at the Walgamott house.

At its core, Wolfer is a clear-eyed take on wolf biology, the tell-tale signs of how they kill, the loonies who surround the issue, and how in hell we got to where we are today.

As numbers grow in Washington and Oregon, and at a time when anyone with an Internet connection can be a wolf expert, it would behoove sportsmen and ranchers to bone up on wolf realities from someone who has been in their den – literally.

It’s available at Powell’s in Portland, Fireside Books in Olympia, and on Amazon (paperback and Kindle).

Editor’s note: Last week, after incorporating 60,000-plus public comments, blind peer review and state staff suggestions, WDFW issued a revised draft wolf management plan. It will be discussed during this weekend’s Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting in Olympia, and June 8-9 in Ellensburg with the agency’s Wolf Working Group.
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