As chairman of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and a lifelong hunter and fisherman, Brad Smith of Bellingham is accustomed to seeing wild critters in their natural habitat.
But it was a bit out of the ordinary last August when he and his wife watched from the kitchen window as a wolf sauntered across the yard of their summer home and disappeared into the woods.
“That was pretty cool,” Smith said. “I’d never seen one that close. When you see one, you realize it’s not a coyote. Pretty majestic critter.”
Nearly as memorable to Smith was the response of the neighbors to whom he mentioned the sighting.
“To a person, they all said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty neat.’ Or, ‘That’s special.’ I didn’t have anybody say, ‘Didn’t you get your gun?’ Or, ‘Weren’t you scared?’”
That’s because Smith’s summer home is on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he was raised and where wolves have been present and prevalent for two decades.
“You don’t hear horror stories about the wolves wiping out the white-tails (deer),” he said. “You have chronic wasting disease and you have hard winters, but I don’t hear these apocalyptic stories about (how) the wolf is the end of everything we know, the deer will all be eaten, the grandchildren will all be eaten.”
Which, of course, is precisely how many Washington residents still feel about canis lupus — as a fairy-tale villain. Or a very real one.
One of the first wolf references on the state’s database of “dangerous wildlife incident reports” came from Stevens County, where a man reported seeing wolves chasing deer in a field and was, according to the report, “concerned that they will come after his grandchildren.”
In Ferry County, a woman told state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers two gray wolves had “attempted to lure” her dog outside. Whenever one of the state’s gray wolves chases a house pet, kills a calf or a lamb, is seen anywhere doing anything or is simply run over on one of the state’s roadways, it makes headlines.
Cougars? Not so much.
Coyotes? Not at all.
Yet cougars, and coyotes to an even greater extent, are far more likely than wolves to be behind the disappearance of rural pets or livestock, and are certainly far more numerous on the Washington landscape.
Since 2010, there have been 65 reported wolf “incidents” — more than a dozen of which, state investigators believe, almost certainly didn’t involve wolves.
Cougar incidents over the same period of time? Nearly 2,000.
Those incident numbers are right in line with the population numbers. Washington’s most recent wolf survey estimated 68 individual animals. The state also has roughly 2,000 cougars.
“Wolf interactions are not nearly at the level of cougars, but it draws a lot of attention, a lot of controversy, because it’s a bit unknown,” said Donny Martorello, wolf policy lead at the Fish and Wildlife Department.
“Until the last few years, livestock producers have not had to deal with wolves since they were extirpated many decades ago. And cougars have been here the whole time.”
But while virtually any incident involving wolves becomes fodder for the news stories, social media reports and coffee-break gossip, some cougar incidents go unreported — even ones involving livestock predation.
When a wolf kills livestock — say, a calf, lamb or goat — the livestock owner is compensated by the state from a fund set aside for just that purpose.
The state has a similar fund set aside to compensate livestock owners for predation by cougars or bears, but it’s essentially there in theory only. The Legislature hasn’t funded the cougar/bear compensation program for the last two bienniums, so there have been no claims. None.
“The rancher has the option to make a claim,” said Ralf Schreiner, conflict program specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Department. “We still can’t pay it.”
The one time wolves from the Teanaway pack have created a significant problem for the family-owned, Moxee-based Martinez sheep business was four years ago, when they injured a shepherd dog trying to keep them from feeding on the carcass of a female sheep.
Schreiner’s department paid for the dog’s veterinary bills, but not for the dead ewe; it had been killed not by wolves, but by a cougar.
And, since cougar kills aren’t being reported by livestock owners, even Schreiner knew nothing about the numerous Martinez-owned lambs and ewes killed by cougars since that incident.
“Every year it’s kind of a roll of the dice,” said Mark Martinez, one of two brothers who oversee the Martinez operation on its grazing allotments in Yakima, Kittitas and Chelan counties.
On one allotment east of Blewett Pass, no sooner had the sheep been unloaded from the truck than a cougar “was dogging them consistently, and we were 14 head short by probably halfway through the season,” Martinez said. Later that season, the herder’s dogs treed the cat, but not until it had killed two ewes and three lambs, “in just that one episode.”
Sometimes, when a carcass isn’t found for days or even weeks, determining the culprit isn’t easy.
This year, state wildlife conflict specialist Steve Wetzel came across five sheep carcasses off Blewett Pass and, Martinez said, “never could figure out what had foraged on them. There was bear tracks, and cat scat, and there were the (Teanaway pack) wolves in that area as well.
“Once they were killed, everybody showed up for the meal.”
In 2008, when gray wolves first began reappearing on this state’s landscape, 75 percent of respondents to a public-opinion survey commissioned by the wildlife department favored wolf recovery.
By 2014 — perhaps in response to repeated livestock predation in the northeastern corner of the state, where in 2012 state marksmen removed nearly all of the Wedge Pack — that public-opinion support had dropped to 64 percent.
Still flying under the public’s radar, though, are the cougars — each of which will eat roughly the same amount of meat (8 to 10 pounds) in a day as an adult wolf. And there are 30 cougars for every wolf in the state, even though wolves remain a protected species while hunters buying a deer/elk license need pay only another $11 to add cougars to the license. Some 50,000 hunters in the state do precisely that every year.
And even farther off the public’s radar are the animals invariably responsible for more livestock and pet kills than every other predator combined: Coyotes.
Washington has more than 50,000 of them, though state officials would happily see them hunted into oblivion. You don’t need a license to shoot them — or even basic hunting ethics. You can spotlight coyotes at night (except in fall months near an active deer/elk season) and shoot as many as you want, day or night, the sort of thing that with any game animal would earn you a hefty fine or even jail time.
But who’d be afraid of a skinny little coyote, right? Well, coyotes have also killed the same number of humans in North America (two) over the last century as wolves. And they’re a lot more brazen around people.
Three years ago, a Kent man was attacked in his yard by three coyotes apparently trying to get at his small dog. That story made the news briefly and was quickly forgotten.
Had those been wolves, we’d still be talking about it.