In July 2015, some U.S. Air Force personnel were hiking about eight miles up North Fork Chewelah Creek, in northeastern Washington, when they found the chewed-up remains of a cow. They notified the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which sent out investigators the next day. The investigators found a second carcass nearby and three days later, discovered two more — a cow and a calf. Wolves, they determined, had killed all four animals.
The dead cattle were squarely in the territory of a wolf pack called Dirty Shirt, and local ranchers’ reactions were predictably fierce. “The time for the removal of the Dirty Shirt pack is now,” Justin Hedrick, the president of the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association, said in a statement. But instead of mustering sharpshooters, wildlife officials sent riders on horseback to keep the wolves away. They used generators to shine bright lights around the rest of the herd, while other employees patrolled the area. They shared data on the pack’s location — three wolves are radio-collared — with area livestock producers, so other cattle could be shifted out of harm’s way. But they also said that if the wolves killed more cows, they would consider shooting them.
Within a few days, the pack moved to a different part of its territory, and fears died down. Three months later, its wolves remain on probation of a sort, but the state hasn’t taken further action. And even though tempers still simmer, the incident shows the difference between wolf recovery in the Northwest compared to the Rocky Mountains or the Southwest. Washington, with its generally more progressive politics, was able to adopt policies that would have had little traction in the Interior West. But even here, thanks to stark urban-rural political divides, the effort’s successes come by way of a very delicate and ongoing balancing act.