June 3, 2009

By Joyce Campbell

While a government report has found no conclusive evidence that wolves were involved in the death of a Methow Valley cow last month, the rancher who owned the animal is certain that his new canine neighbors are responsible.

Preliminary results of an investigation into the cause of the cow’s death near the home range of Washington state’s first confirmed wolf pack in 70 years said the carcass was too old and scavenged to determine the cause of death. Investigators said the cow was dead too many days to determine what caused its death.

The rancher said he saw a wolf twice near the spot where the cow died, and the cow wasn’t the first livestock he believes he has lost to wolves.

Investigators could not find any obvious signs of what killed the cow, and the hide had no puncture wounds or claw marks, according to Tom Buckley, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There were no signs of a struggle that would indicate a predator such as a cougar, bear or wolf caused the death, he reported Friday (May 29).

There was no wolf scat or hair around the scene, which is often found around a kill, said Buckley. Tracks that appeared to be from scavenging dogs, coyotes, ravens and possibly wolves were found near the carcass.

Rancher Larry Richner, however, sees things differently. Richner, a part-time resident and owner of the Golden Doe Ranch, six miles south of Twisp, said Tuesday (June 2) that there were signs of a struggle, noting that he found a beat-down area 60 to 80 feet across near the dead cow. The cow had been the last to calve, on May 10, and Richner said he saw the cow with the calf before leaving for his home in Whatcom County that day. He returned on May 14 and he and several other people saw a wolf walking across the hill the morning of May 15. The next day they saw the same wolf at the same time and decided to see what it was doing. They found the cow dead, and there was no sign of the calf.

“I can’t prove it, but I saw it,” said Richner.

No one in the group had a camera. “It was real black. No question, it was no coyote. It was big.”

He has seen wolves “quite a few times.” Last spring, he said, his ranch caretaker was alerted by his dogs one night. The caretaker said he saw four pairs of eyes in the dark and the next day found one of the six horses dead. The bones were smashed and the ground was disturbed, said Richner.

“I doubt there will be any compensation,” said Richner. When an investigation by Wildlife Services determines that the cause or possible cause of death to be wolf predation, ranchers may apply for compensation from the Defenders of Wildlife.

Richner returned home Tuesday (June 2) to dozens of messages on his phone, many related to the dead cow. He said one rancher left a message, “Your best bet is just to poison them.”

“I don’t make a living off this ranch,” said Richner. “Guys that do, just about got to wipe them out.”

“There will be loss of livestock if wolves are successful here. It will happen eventually,” said Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest outreach representative in Okanogan County. “We have processes in place that are fair to everybody. If there is predation we’ll take care of it and move on.”

“Wolves don’t have to and shouldn’t mean the end of grazing. Multiple use will get a little harder, but it’s a challenge we can meet, said Kehne. Ranchers with concerns about wolf recovery in Okanogan County can call Kehne at (509) 470-1767.

Wolves in Okanogan County and the western two-thirds of Washington state are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and by state law. The taking of a gray wolf is a federal and state crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and fines up to $100,000.