Updated at 9:50 p.m. ET: Two gray wolves in Washington state were killed from a state helicopter Tuesday afternoon after officials decided the entire pack -- believed to be at least eight wolves -- needed to be killed because of repeated attacks on cattle, officials said.
An airborne marksman with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife killed the two wolves about seven miles from the Canadian border -- a week after marksmen and wildlife biologists spent days looking for the pack.
A major conservation group working with Washington state to manage its gray wolves agreed that the pack should be culled but also blamed a rancher in the area for not doing more to protect his cattle.
In the last decade, however, gray wolves have started to re-establish themselves in Washington due to recovery efforts in nearby states and dispersal from Canada.
At least eight packs are now established in the eastern half of Washington, which also has a conservation plan in place — one that aims to restore wolves in the wild without those same wolves preying on livestock. The state compensates ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, but that hasn't ended the tension.
"Wolves are recolonizing our state relatively quickly," Dave Ware, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman, told NBC News. "Managing conflicts is one of the most important objectives for recovery so that people don’t take things into their own hands."
Officials last July killed one pack member to see if that would have an impact. The decision to kill the entire pack came after the pack's attacks on cattle continued. Since July, wolves are believed to have killed or injured at least 17 calves and cows despite non-lethal measures to deter them, according to the state wildlife office.
Conservation Northwest, a group working with the state, agreed that killing the pack was best for long-term recovery of gray wolves in the wild.
But director Mitch Friedman told NBC station KING 5 that rancher Bill McIrvine, who lost part of his herd to the pack, "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, for its part, "has not been as firm as it needed to be," Friedman added, especially since McIrvine's cattle graze on public land.
McIrvine, for his part, earlier told KING 5 that he believes groups with "a radical environmental agenda" are conspiring to introduce gray wolves in order "to take our (grazing) lease from us."
Ware said efforts to get rancher cooperation for "non-lethal methods of preventing conflicts" have improved in recent weeks. Several agreements with ranchers should be in place for next year that will hopefully "avoid a repeat of the Wedge Pack situation," he said.
One obvious question is why not just move the wolves to a wilderness area away from livestock?
"Experience from other states with recently recovered wolf populations indicates that survival of relocated wolves is not very high, especially if there are other wolf packs in the area where they are moved, which appears to be the case in most of northeast Washington," Ware said.
On top of that, "once a pack becomes habituated to eating livestock, moving them only moves the conflict" since wolf territories are larger than any wilderness area the state could ship them to, he said.
"Lethal removal is being conducted in every" state with gray wolves, Ware added, while acknowledging that since wolf recovery efforts are new in Washington "the concept of killing an endangered species to promote recovery is difficult to understand or accept."
"The Wedge area is good habitat, so wolves will likely recolonize relatively quickly over the next year or two," Ware said.
A department wildlife veterinarian will perform necropsies on the wolves later this week. Their hides and skulls will be used for educational purposes, according to a statement on the state's wildlife management website.
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