Delicate Dances With Those Who Save Wolves
A compromise between ranchers and conservationists to save wolves in Washington state is a real-life fable with a moral that might just solve America.
Arron Scotten wants to take the long route to the scene of the killings. He’s at the wheel of a steel-gray pickup truck winding down two-lane roads in the far northeast corner of Washington state, shotgun resting on the back seat, flip phone charging in the lighter, a pouch of Grizzly chewing tobacco in the cup holder. “See where those poplars are?” he asks, pointing down a valley ringed by rounded mountains and dotted with hayfields gently turning a golden fall yellow. “The caves up there are where my great-great-grandparents spent their first winter.” In the 1880s, Scotten’s forebears came by wagon to this area from Missouri, arriving too late to build a homestead before snow arrived.
Almost a century later, as a teenager, Scotten rode these hills on horseback. He left to join the Navy in 1996, and by 2012, when he returned to become part of the community of independent livestock ranchers, the area’s once-thriving mining and timber industries had collapsed. Scotten works as what’s called a range rider, under a new state program that hires horsemen to keep predators from devouring cattle on this mix of federal and private land.
The area, much of which is leased by Len McIrvin, the patriarch of a prominent ranching family whose herd Scotten protects, is usually ideal for grazing. “The grass is green, and it’s lush, and the cows spread out a little bit and eat and eat,” Scotten says. But the past few years haven’t been usual. “Mother Nature has a very bitchy underside,” he adds.
In 2015 a winter drought fueled a hellacious summer fire season. Scotten was one of many ranchers who worked from dawn to dusk to move thousands of cows to safety. This year the ranchers are facing another test: a wily family of 12 gray wolves known as the Profanity Peak pack.
For almost a century, no gray wolves were known to live in Washington, having been hunted to the brink of extinction by ranchers and farmers settling the West. Over time, scientists convinced much of the public that without apex predators, an ecosystem gets thrown out of whack. In 1974, a year after President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, gray wolves gained federal protection. This set up a decades-long process of returning the canids to the tall peaks and riverbeds that span the U.S. Northern Rockies and the Cascades.
In the mid-1990s government biologists captured dozens of wolves in Canada and trucked them into Yellowstone National Park, where they thrived, and, indifferent to state borders, migrated west. In 2008 biologists documented the arrival of Washington’s first wolf pack. Since then, the population has grown beyond expectations, by roughly 30 percent each year. In the last survey, taken in winter when it’s easier to spot wolves against the white snow from a helicopter, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) counted at least 90, though officials suspect many more evaded detection. Fifteen of the 19 documented packs roam in the northeastern part of the state.
The majority of wolves don’t pester livestock, but those that do can tear a 1-ton cow to shreds. The state pays twice the market value for each cow, sheep, horse, or other animal killed—payments that can total more than $7,000 per claim—but these depredations keep cattle and ranchers on edge.
So far, none of the wolves has loped across the arid plains of Central Washington and over the rugged Cascade peaks toward Puget Sound. There they’d find, as the economy of Eastern Washington hollowed out, modern Seattle and its sprawl were ascendant. The same engineering brains powering Microsoft and its ilk are predisposed to obsess over the science of climate change. Now in this rainy region solar panels abound, composting is considered a civic duty, and the fate of two elephants, Chai and Bamboo, is enough to spark heated protests at a Seattle zoo. It turns out that the wolves that chose the Evergreen State as home made the best move for their long-term survival.
Where wolves are protected as endangered, unless one is caught in the act of eating a rancher’s animals, it’s a federal crime to kill them, punishable by fines or jail time. In 2011, after years of political fights and a growing gray wolf population, the packs in Eastern Washington and most of this stretch of the U.S. Northern Rockies lost their endangered status. This left states responsible for instituting management plans that would maintain a healthy enough number of wolves to keep them off the list permanently—300 for the region is the minimum. Montana and Idaho, red states through and through, managed to keep their delisted status even though they issue permits for hunters to shoot the animals; more than 200 killings a year isn’t uncommon. Legal nonprofit Earthjustice is representing several NGOs in a legal trench war as Wyoming attempts to get its wolves delisted; its proposed management plan allows for indiscriminate trapping, poisoning, and shooting.
The political schism within Washington has forced the state to work toward a more balanced approach. Aside from the divergent cultural persuasions, there are competing financial interests. Hunting and cattle ranching are worth at least $700 million each. But wilderness tourists and vacation-home buyers, for whom a lurking rare animal adds to the allure of the outdoors, also keep the economy juiced.
Scotten recalls the 1970s antigovernment movement whose credo was recently rekindled just south, in Oregon, during the Bundys’ armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “One wrong move around here,” he says, “and you could see us teleported to the Sagebrush Rebellion.”
Acrimony among hunters, ranchers, and conservationists reached a fever pitch in 2014, when wolves in the Huckleberry Pack ate one rancher’s sheep by the dozen. The state sent a sharpshooter in a helicopter to kill one of the pack, but the sniper accidentally took down the breeding female. Tens of thousands of comments flooded the offices of the WDFW and the governor. Conservation groups sued, and ecoterrorists threatened physical harm to government staff and ranchers. To tamp down the flames, the state added more members from all the interest groups to its Wolf Advisory Group (WAG), a small and by then bitterly feuding committee of ranchers, hunters, and conservationists. They also hired an independent peacemaker named Francine Madden.
Madden runs a tiny nonprofit called Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration and has a self-defined job not unlike that of a group therapist. She told WAG’s members that the wolf problem was actually a people problem. “When you have identity-level conflict—black vs. white, antigovernment sentiment, urban-rural divide, whatever it is—you can go anywhere in the world, and people will shoot themselves in the foot if they have a chance of hurting the other side,” Madden says. She’s spent more than a year and a half speaking with an estimated 800 people during hourslong conversations that took place everywhere from a LEED-certified building in Seattle to a supermarket deli out past where Starbucks roams.
Humans have long dumped their anxieties on wolves. Little Red Riding Hood was devoured by the Big Bad Wolf in the classic tale. In the 1960s, Canadian author Farley Mowat galvanized environmentalists to rehab the wolf’s reputation with his book Never Cry Wolf, depicting them as friends who didn’t threaten humans and largely fed on vermin rather than stately caribou. But wolves’ negative image persists—it’s always a “lone wolf” terrorist attack; gangs are “wolf packs.” The wolf’s image is split: It is both fanged monster and wise free spirit staring intensely from the cover of the latest Sierra Club calendar.
Madden won’t say where she stands on the rangy animal; she works like a cipher. She’s in her mid-40s, lives in Washington, D.C., and has a daughter. But beyond that she shares little, lest people assume that what pet she has or food she likes means she secretly favors one side or another.
Madden developed her approach to mediation in the mid-1990s, while serving in the Peace Corps in Uganda. Ecotourism there was improving protection for mountain gorillas. But officials failed to respond to the villagers’ sense of peril, so people resorted to poaching. Madden helped the park and government see the vitality of adjacent communities as essential for the gorillas’ welfare. Rangers started living in the villages and formed rapid response teams with farmers to chase attacking gorillas back into the park. Madden went on to apprentice with reconciliation teams after Rwanda’s genocide and the wars in East Timor and the Balkans. For two decades, she’s applied the human-centered approach she learned to lessen poaching in countries such as Kenya and Mozambique.
The wolf conflict in Washington is her largest project yet. She signed a two-year, $850,000 contract with the state that covers her salary and travel, plus support from two staffers. Shelly Short, a state legislator from northeastern Washington, was initially skeptical. Folks in her rural district don’t appreciate urbanites telling them what to do. But after meeting Madden, Short was cautiously optimistic. “I was like, ‘Huh. OK.’ She sounded like someone who didn’t have a dog in the fight.”
Roughly every other month, Madden leads two-day WAG meetings. Jack Field, the no-nonsense executive vice president of the Washington Cattleman’s Association, which has spent about $175,000 in the past five years lobbying the state government, says he showed up at the first meeting with a long list of policies that he expected to resolve then and there, such as lowering the number of wolves required for recovery to be considered complete and deciding when the state can shoot wolves. “I don’t want to talk. I want to do,” he says. “But we can’t all just go in and do if people don’t have that level of trust. It just takes time.”
Madden structured the meetings so each group—conservationists, hunters, and ranchers—could explain the histories and priorities of their communities. They’d grab drinks at the hotel bar and have dinner together in bland hotel meeting rooms at night, when they were forbidden from talking about policy. The WAG members came to learn about one another as three-dimensional people rather than parodies of the weak-minded envirokook or the selfish cattleman.
When a rancher spoke about receiving death threats from environmentalists, “that was a bonding experience right from the beginning,” says Paula Swedeen, carnivore policy lead at Conservation Northwest. She says she hadn’t understood why ranchers wouldn’t take up her group’s offer to pay for resources to prevent attacks. “You can be the most technically proficient and well-financed and well-intentioned,” she says, “but it won’t go anywhere” unless you have compassion for the threats ranchers are facing. Swedeen thinks her position was heard, too. “The planet is going down the tubes,” she says. “It’s large, existential threats about climate change, the loss of habitat, the number of species declining, and the government and general public are not acting in accordance with the scale of the threat.”
In May, just before the summer grazing season began, WAG reached an extraordinary détente. The ranchers agreed to adopt nonlethal protocols. For reducing wolf attacks, there are many such techniques: Guardian dogs can scare them off in summer, or foxlights, which flash at random patterns, can protect areas where calves are born. Range riders such as Scotten can create a human presence that wolves fear. Most bizarrely, wolves are also afraid to cross barriers known as fladry: little red flags tied along a white string, like those at used car lots. In turn, conservationists agreed that if the protocols failed—and many ranchers consider them hocus-pocus—the state could kill a wolf after confirming that its pack made four attacks on livestock. The number was arrived at based not so much on hard science as on what each side could stomach.
A necropsy performed by the state in early July, using forensic techniques such as measuring the depth of bite marks, confirmed that a pack had killed its first calf of the season—one of McIrvin’s. In the next two weeks, two more calves were killed by wolves, all in a large, remote area known as Profanity Peak. Following the new protocols, Scotten raced all summer to keep the wolves away from the languorous ruminants. His daughter helped him look up the GPS locations of a few wolves the state had fitted with radio collars before releasing them into the wild. His son rode out with him to scare the wolves with loud noises. The plan seemed to be working.
On a Tuesday night in August, about 60 people trickle into a microbrewery in Seattle to discuss the question “Can humans and wolves successfully coexist?” The guests grab seats at wooden tables and place orders for IPAs and grass-fed beef burgers before the panel, hosted by Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, begins. “Do you like wolves?” a young man in a baseball cap asks an older woman across a table. “I love wolves!” she says enthusiastically.
The panelists praise wolves for their adaptability: Their plump paws are perfect snowshoes in winter, and their lean, aerodynamic bodies help them run as fast as 40 mph and cover hundreds of miles across a variety of terrain. Suzanne Stone, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife, points to the audience and asks, “Can I use you as guinea pigs?” She arranges volunteers into a pack structure. A zoo staff member in a khaki shirt holds his hand up high, like the pack’s strong alpha male holds his tail, while a woman with dyed purple hair hunches and folds her arms inward—a vulnerable pup. A woman in a brown cardigan takes the role of a beta female, which Stone likens to “middle management,” helping baby-sit pups while other adults seek food. As the pups grow, they branch out, going through a lone wolf period before eventually forming new packs.
A pack’s family arrangement supports a high reproductive rate, which is why wolves have rebounded faster than the government anticipated. Two decades after the Yellowstone introduction, wildlife biologists are thrilled by how quickly the wolves have restored balance to the elk population, which had bloated after decades without a predator. The willow, aspen, and cottonwood that the ungulates had trampled regrew, attracting songbirds, filtering waterways, and bringing back beavers and other riparian fauna.
The three greatest threats to wolves, Stone tells the beer drinkers, are “us, us, and us!” As the panel wraps up, a tall man unfolds himself from a low couch in the back and introduces himself as Shawn Cantrell, the Northwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife and a member of WAG. “Two years ago, this group existed, and it was the most dysfunctional group of people you could imagine,” he says. Now, they were transformed. “We’re not going to sit in a room and figure out how to argue,” Cantrell says. “We’re going to sit in a room and try to understand each other’s point of view.”
Cantrell tells the gathering that this slow work has made Washington the first state to come to an agreement. “We have dramatically increased social acceptance in the ranching community for wolves,” he explains. But, he says, “We’ve had to agree that if we get to a point where a wolf pack is, despite the best efforts of this livestock operator, continuing to attack his cows and sheep, we say, ‘Yes, we need to remove those wolves.’ ” Cantrell adds: “And ‘remove the wolves’ is a euphemism for kill them. Which is a really hard pill to swallow.”
With that, he issues a warning: The Profanity Peak pack has already killed three cows in July. “If we get to a fourth one,” he says, “the department is authorized to go in and start killing wolves in that pack.” A gasp ripples across the brewery. Cantrell goes on: “We are busting our backside to try to avoid that.”
The day after the brewery event, on Aug. 3, Scotten finds evidence of two more attacks, the fourth and fifth. Two months later he drives me to check out the site of the fifth, his truck rattling across the Kettle Range, over a land bridge between two ridges covered in golden huckleberry bushes and small pine trees. When Scotten arrived at the scene in August, it appeared that the wolves had chased and trapped a group of cattle against a barbed-wire fence, leaving mangled wire dangling between two posts. A calf had gotten hung up on the fence, according to Scotten, and when they found her, she had teeth marks and chunks of missing flesh. She’d already bled to death. He describes the mother cow as almost haunted, “running up and down, up and down, mooing, mooing, mooing.” Overnight, the Profanity Peak pack had blown past the threshold that authorized the state to kill some of its wolves, testing a fragile peace that was only a few months old.
Following the protocol recommended by WAG, on Aug. 5, the WDFW’s director authorizes the killing of a portion of the pack. The next day, a sharpshooter in a helicopter kills two female members. Everyone braces for the blowback. “Two days into the Huckleberry Pack removal, the governor’s office had received 20,000 e-mails and his switchboard was literally shut down,” Cantrell tells me a few days later. “It’s much calmer this time.”
For two weeks, the hills of the Kettle Range are quiet; the wolves don’t attack any more cattle. The department declares the lethal action over. The next day, though, Scotten finds two more calves the department agreed were “probable depredations.” The director authorizes the staff to wipe out the rest of the Profanity Peak pack.
Over the next week the state shoots four more wolves—two adult males, an adult female, and a female pup. Several environmental groups that aren’t part of WAG protest at the state capitol, waving signs that read “Conserve Wolves Not Cattle” and “Wolf Lives Matter.” The four conservation groups on WAG issue a news release calling the deaths “deeply regrettable,” but restate their commitment to the “long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves in our state alongside thriving rural communities.”
Then, in a front-page article in the Seattle Times, Robert Wielgus, director of Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Conservation Lab, is quoted saying about the McIrvins: “This livestock operator elected to put his livestock directly on top of their den site.”
That’s when everything explodes. Ranchers, department staff, and environmentalists receive death threats, and the four conservation groups that support WAG face a revolt from their members. Within days, WSU issues a retraction, calling the comments “inaccurate and inappropriate,” and saying that Wielgus had admitted “he had no basis in fact” for his claim. But the damage is done.
“We are just getting ripped,” Diane Gallegos, the executive director of the animal sanctuary Wolf Haven International, says with a sigh. People who once supported her organization now accuse her of selling out the animals. “What would Wolf Haven be getting for that bargain?” she asks. Continuing to stand by WAG is a financial risk, as the group has already lost some of the donors who provide essentially all of her $1 million budget. Gallegos has also received death threats.
Molly Linville, a rancher with a small cattle herd who sits on WAG, says she feels “gut-punched” when she hears what the conservationists on the group are going through. “They’re getting death threats—from their own people!” Linville had invited Gallegos to the ranch “to chill for a few days.” Linville says Gallegos told her, “ ‘I feel more confident and driven than I have ever been.’ I was amazed by that statement.”
Madden says the infighting among conservationists is “same-side conflict”—a force that can be more vicious than battles between opponents. The first WAG session after the Profanity Peak firestorm is another volatile example. Activists circle in the parking lot outside the meeting, which takes place in mid-September at a Holiday Inn about 20 miles east of Seattle. The gatherings typically allow public comment for a half-hour at the end. But this time 30 minutes isn’t going to cut it. Madden decides to open up the entire meeting to outside voices. It’s better to bring people into the process, she’s learned, than to have them seethe on the periphery.
The WAG members and department staff sit in a U-shaped circle, with the public surrounding them. “I’m not going to look at Francine,” Linville jokes, making an unsuccessful attempt to hold back tears. “Us cattle producers are not great at change. People are upset that we are not changing fast enough. ... I want you to realize that cattle producers using nonlethals is huge. It’s huge. And they are doing it.” Nick Martinez, who raises sheep and cattle, quietly says, “It’s unfortunate that it takes tragic circumstances to create a lot of trust built in a short time. We are all together. We are all in the same boat. And down the river we go. Francine has the only paddle.”
The group brainstorms about what parts of the lethal-removal protocol to revise. Several members lament that the plan doesn’t formally account for depredations that the department determined had “probably” been carried out by wolves. To ranchers, those deaths shouldn’t go unanswered. Dan Paul, from the Humane Society of the United States, says he’d like more detail on how the department could incrementally reduce the pack size, instead of jumping to a full removal. And Linville raises the department’s culling methods. “Humane killing of wolves is very important to me because I am part of the decision that reached this stage,” she says.
That statement sends a jeer through the audience, which is unmoved at seeing a rancher express concern for wolves. A woman with horn-rimmed glasses stands and declares, “I do not want people to say ‘humanely’ removed.” Scotten, who’s made the five-hour trek to the meeting, says, “I don’t want to see the wolves decimated, but at the same time, I have a hundred years plus of history and I want to see another hundred more.”
With WAG’s conservation members taking so much heat, Short and Joel Kretz, the other state legislator for the northeast, penned an op-ed in support of WAG. They wrote in the Chewelah Independent that they “deeply appreciate these groups’ efforts to find common ground” and praised “a path to stable wolf populations that also promote a vibrant ranching culture.”
“Some of the cowboys are kinda pissed at me,” Kretz says of the response to the op-ed. “Say something nice about an environmental group, you know? They’re the devil incarnate in everybody’s opinion over here. ... This is how you get unelected.”
Where this all leads depends on the family at the center of the Profanity Peak controversy. “The whole ranching industry is hanging on the McIrvins right now,” Kretz says. While many ranchers take on second jobs to stabilize their incomes, the McIrvins work full time running one of the largest cattle operations in the state. “If the McIrvins go down,” Kretz says, “then the little guys go down.”
The family had kept quiet this summer amid death threats against them and their kids. But in late September they agree to meet. Scotten drives me to their ranch, the Diamond M, following the Kettle River until we get close enough to the border that our phones switch to Canadian cell towers. We pull off the two-lane highway and follow a dusty road that bends with the river to a small log cabin with a flapping American flag out front.
Len McIrvin, the 73-year-old patriarch, greets us in the kitchen, and his wife, Pat, offers coffee from the urn she puts out each morning for the ranch hands. McIrvin’s son, Bill, heads out to start moving cattle, while Len and his grandson, Justin Hendrick, get to talking. McIrvin, whose angular eyes and bridged glasses resemble the elder George Bush’s, explains why he agreed to talk. “Do you know what WM2 means?” McIrvin asks, leaning forward in his recliner.
“Nope,” I say.
“Well-meaning, woolly minded,” he quips. “Hopefully you will get a word out to the WM2 people. Hopefully we can change that to well-meaning, knowledgeable people.”
McIrvin’s grandfather founded Diamond M. Three generations now live on the property. McIrvin reminisces about a time when the government encouraged ranchers to take protection into their own hands. “When I was a kid, I got a bounty for them—$40 for a cougar scalp, and 10¢ for a crow or magpie,” he says. But since the wolves have come back, they feel they have no recourse. “I am not advocating the complete annihilation,” he says. “But the wolves have to teach their pups. These predators have to fear man, period. All we’ve ever asked is to leave us alone. Diamond M Ranch will take care of the problem.” That’s just what the conservationists are afraid of.
By this point, the state has confirmed wolf attacks on nine of McIrvin’s cattle, plus another five “probable” attacks. The family suspects that when they round up their 2,000 cattle for winter, more than 100 will be dead. Plus, they say, their cows can’t lazily graze because the wolves keep chasing them. McIrvin says that means the cows will come back not only thinner—fetching less at auction—but less likely to be pregnant. Normally, 1 percent to 2 percent of the cattle come back barren, but the McIrvins worry that this year, as many as 20 percent will be childless. “They’re not only killing 20 percent of this year’s calves,” McIrvin says. “They’re eliminating 20 percent of next year’s.”
But the McIrvins don’t accept the compensation the department offers for dead cattle. “In our minds, compensation is the same as compromise,” Hendrick chimes in. “Like Grandpa said, we’d be selling our morals.”
Although they toe a hard line and are skeptical of WAG, the McIrvins have quietly, begrudgingly, adapted in ways that were unheard of a few years back. They’ve started waiting longer than normal to begin grazing calves, which puts stronger animals on the land, and they follow the state’s guidelines to remove dead animals that could attract wolves. In perhaps the biggest concession to the department, they’ve agreed to work with a range rider—Scotten—who’s paid $9,800 a year by the state for protecting the McIrvins’ cattle. “Arron is different,” Hendrick says. He explains that their families go back generations. “We said, ‘OK, we’ll consent to somebody being up there if we get to choose the guy.’ ”
Scotten later tells me they even laid out fladry around a dead cow that they found in a location too remote to haul out. The flags did keep wolves from returning to feast on the carcass for a little more than a month, Scotten says, until the department eventually removed it.
Later, Scotten and I drive alongside a nearby creek to meet McIrvin and Hendrick at a corral under an arbor of pine trees. “Come on, girls!” Hendrick cries, pushing and nudging the mooing cattle up a clanking metal ramp to a semi emblazoned with Diamond M’s name. Even though the McIrvins have paid to lease the land for several more weeks, they’re moving roughly 60 cows and calves to a private parcel 50 miles south, out of the territory roamed by the Profanity Peak pack.
By late October the department has killed three more of the pack’s members, bringing the total dead to seven. Another is thought to have died of natural causes, leaving only an adult female and three juveniles in the Kettle Range. More than two weeks have passed without a wolf attack, and as the McIrvins and other ranchers pull the cattle off the hillsides, the risk of attacks recedes. The department announces that lethal removal of the Profanity Peak pack is over.
With the grazing season ending, the peace generally holds—or at least, no environmentalists file lawsuits, nor do any ranchers poach a wolf. The winter provides a break, as the wolves and cattle don’t share as much of the landscape then. In early February, WAG hopes to tweak the lethal protocol, and then it will try to foster the truce through to the summer grazing season.
As humans increasingly sprawl out into wildlife habitat, learning how to get along with each other getting along with the animals will be key to maintaining a semblance of balance in the earth’s ecosystems. “People are more willing to go above and beyond if they don’t feel above and beyond is imposed on them,” Madden says.
Back in Scotten’s truck, headed to his cabin and his two dozen chickens, six horses, and a gaggle of dogs, he says he’s been talking with the families he works with and plans to attend future WAG meetings. “We have got to keep ourselves inside the battle.”
At the same time, Scotten was moved when he met several WAG members, including Conservation Northwest’s Swedeen, touring the Kettle Range in late summer. “When I first met Paula, I was standing out in the woods, where I’m comfortable,” he says. “She took the time to come and take a look.” After talking with Swedeen, he didn’t see her as an enemy. “Even though she may be labeled a conservationist, I just see her as Paula.”
Scotten hopes to find middle ground. “I could see on their side that they want their kids to see the things and do the things that they’ve done,” he says. “Is she going to want to make sure there’s this open space, this open land? Absolutely. Is her reason maybe a little different than mine? Probably. But can we agree that we don’t want to see all of this land get developed? Absolutely. Again, you find a commonality, and that’s what you work towards.”