A Way Forward with Wolves

Washington state’s long-running conflict between wolves and ranchers mirrors our society’s bigger ideological rifts. Some are trying to bridge the gap—using both horse and technology.

Janey Howe slings a saddlebag over the back of her 18-year-old gelding, Billy, stuffing the pockets with snacks, her phone, and a game camera. She has hundreds of acres to cover on unforgiving terrain. During the school year, Howe, 51, teaches science in Chewelah, a charming small town in Stevens County, in northeastern Washington state. In the summer she works as a “range rider,” traversing the neighboring 1.5-million-acre Colville National Forest, nearly two-thirds of which is leased to ranchers for cattle grazing. Her job is to protect cattle from wolves—and wolves from humans.

More than 200 wolves roam the state’s forests. Conservationists and ranchers have been wrangling over their presence for almost 15 years, mirroring a conflict that has unfolded elsewhere in the West. In the middle of the two extremes stands a small band of people who are trying to find a way forward in which wildlife and humans can peacefully coexist. Howe is one of them.

Today she and Billy follow a logging road for a couple of miles, then trot out into a large open field where 100 or so cows are grazing. She’s looking after the cattle of a rancher who signed up for the wolf monitoring program run by the state’s wildlife agency, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The program in part involves hiring range riders like Howe to patrol vast swathes of rangeland.

It’s autumn, but the sun is fierce. Howe squints as she counts the animals. A few years ago, riding up to a clearing not unlike this one, she smelled the rot of death even before she saw the carcass: a deer skeleton, almost picked clean. She couldn’t be sure what had killed it. Wolves are messy eaters, she explains, but often scavengers arrive for leftovers. And so she strapped a camera to a nearby tree and waited. Days later, she retrieved it and reviewed the footage. Howe has never seen a wolf alive in the wild. But there they were, on grainy film at least: two wolf pups—lean and dark, with shaggy fur and pricked ears. Sometimes when she’s on patrol, she hears the animals howling, and she often sees tracks, den sites, and their tell-tale scat, which contain hair and the undigested flesh and bones of what they’ve eaten. When she sees signs of a wolf while working, Howe makes “a lot of noise, blasting the radio and blaring the horn if I’m in my truck or shouting loudly,” or racing around with her horse. “Anything to scare them off, really.”

On this unusually hot autumn day, she once again finds a suitable tree on which to strap a game camera, a watchful eye for wolves when she can’t be here. Then she navigates Billy down a steep bank to cross a stream.

The pay is modest for this kind of work, and there’s no overtime when Howe camps out. The rewards, though, are more intangible than money. “At first I loved it,” says Howe, who grew up in this corner of the state. “On horseback all day in the beautiful mountains, what isn’t there to love?”

Howe is soft-spoken, with a passion for equality and fairness. She wants rural northeastern Washington and her neighbors to survive and prosper. But range riding is exhausting, and not only because of the time in the saddle. As it turns out, wolves are easy. People are hard.

Howe’s effort to help humans and animals fit together on this in-demand landscape is important work. But that doesn’t mean everybody is happy about it.

Americans have had a complicated relationship with wolves since even before the United States existed. The Massachusetts Bay Colony posted the first documented wolf bounty in 1630, offering one shilling to any colonist who killed a wolf. In the decades that followed, wolves—which once roamed more than two-thirds of the U.S.—were poisoned, trapped, and shot anywhere they were found. By the 1930s, the animals had been extirpated from almost every corner of the contiguous 48 states.

The absence of this keystone predator upset the balance of numerous ecosystems. With wolves stripped from the landscape, elk and deer populations exploded. Their foraging caused riparian and upland plant communities to collapse. Loss of aspen and cottonwood trees in Yellowstone National Park could be dated “almost exactly” to the extermination of the last wolf packs in the Park in the mid-1920s, studies have found.

Americans began to rethink the importance of wolves after the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. In 1978, with only two wolf populations remaining, in Michigan and Minnesota, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed wolves as endangered which protected them in all of the lower 48 states.

When a pack of wolves crossed from Canada into Montana’s Glacier National Park in the 1980s, many Americans rejoiced. Biologists named the wolves the “Magic Pack.” Their return was seen as a milestone for the growing environmental movement, a sign that nature could reverse some of the damage caused by colonial expansion, if given the chance. Wolf recovery took another step forward in 1995 when biologists for the National Park Service introduced eight wolves from Alberta, Canada to Yellowstone.

Most experts agree the reintroduction has been an unmitigated success. As wolves expanded they reset the “trophic cascade,” the ripples that a top predator’s presence sends through a food chain. Elk and other large prey populations dispersed and decreased to more natural, sustainable numbers. Aspen, willow, and other woody and herbaceous plants that had been mowed down previously by large herbivores recovered. Native mammals such as beaver and bison rebounded and increased.

But in many places, the return of the wolves has been controversial. Wolves are a symbol. What they represent depends on your beliefs. To some environmentalists, the animals are emblematic of a healing wildness. To other conservative ranchers, wolves symbolize bureaucratic meddling in a rural way of life that treasures self-reliance and a staunchly proud independence—even if these same opponents frequently lean heavily on the use of public lands, with their low grazing fees, for their livelihood.

Any wildlife weighed down by so much of our own baggage and predetermined mindsets can be hard to recognize simply for what it is: a wild animal.

In 2008 Washington’s wildlife agency confirmed that wolves had returned on their own and re-established themselves in Okanogan County for the first time since being extirpated in the state in the 1930s. The agency had high hopes—perhaps naively—that it could avoid the firestorm around wolves that had roiled other states. Anticipating that wolves might eat livestock as they expanded their range, the wildlife agency (WDFW) spent months working with discussion groups–composed of local ranchers, teachers, law enforcement officials, and community leaders—before publishing a Wolf Conservation and Management Plan in 2011. The plan aimed to “encourage social tolerance for the species by addressing and reducing conflicts” and minimizing livestock losses. To do so, the plan recommended training ranchers to use non-lethal deterrents, from electric fencing to colored flags, called fladry, strung around pastures. It proposed that ranchers modify some of their practices, taking steps, for example, to move cattle away from known wolf activity, and to quickly dispose of any carcasses that could lure a wolf. And it proposed funding a program of range riders like Howe.

Finally, the plan called for increasingly aggressive actions by the wildlife agency toward wolves in an area whenever killings of livestock began: at first, trapping and relocating wolf packs when other measures didn’t work. And if all else failed, the plan recommended killing wolves.

So far, wolves have done well in Washington. There are now 206 animals confirmed in the state, and likely more, wildlife officials say. The population has increased by about 25 percent annually since the wolves first arrived. And these wolves sometimes do kill livestock: In 2021, for example, wolves killed five cows and injured eight more; in addition, two calves were considered “probable” wolf kills and six were considered injuries likely caused by wolves.

And, as elsewhere, people on both sides of the issue are unhappy with how the past dozen-plus years have played out.

“They told us, ‘Wolves don’t kill cattle,”’ says Scott Nielsen, president of Steven County’s Cattlemen’s Association, speaking of meetings ranchers had with WDFW back in the mid 2000s. Despite what he claims ranchers were told, he and others braced for wolves to begin preying on their livestock. Ranchers felt “betrayed,” he told me one fall day in 2020 between sips of lemonade at TJ’s Tavern, a local hangout in Kettle Falls, 10 miles up the road from Colville that’s famous for its Friday night prime rib dinners welcoming “recovering vegetarians.”

He scoffs at the state’s plan to manage wolves. “They implemented a wolf plan we didn’t want, and didn’t think would work, and now it’s not working,” says Nielsen. And, he claims, as ungulate populations decline in the state, cattle and sheep are sitting ducks for them to eat.

Ben Maletzke, the agency’s wolf specialist, acknowledges that frustration. Wolves sometimes kill livestock despite best efforts to keep the two apart, Maletzke says. And sometimes, he adds, ranchers feel the state doesn’t move fast enough to kill offending wolves.

Overall, though, wolves pose little threat to livestock compared to other natural hazards. A USDA report found that in one year, almost 98 percent of deaths in adult cattle were unrelated to predators. To ranchers, however, the wolf is simply one more issue on a long list of challenges that livestock producers now face, from drought and market fluctuations to competition from Brazilian beef. And a wolf in the pasture strikes at something deeper, too. For most, ranching isn’t just a job but a way of life, one often passed down from father to son or daughter. And so, ranchers will say they don’t work from sunup to sundown, in all kinds of conditions, so that the product of their work can be eaten by a wolf. To some extent the antipathy to wolves, and current wolf management, is less about money than about cultural self-determination. Which also explains why they are more likely to trust their fellow ranchers, and be more wary of government.

Some environmentalists say the wildlife agency is too quick on the trigger. The agency frequently over-reacts to livestock deaths, by killing more wolves, without resolving more systemic problems with how it manages them, says Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Nielsen and Weiss disagree on most things. But they seem to agree on one point: In the smaller, hotter, and more crowded world of the 21st century, Americans will not be able to pretend they can have it all forever: cowboys rearing free-range cattle on open pastures, hamburgers aplenty, and an abundance of wolves–or indeed any wild apex predator that needs freedom to roam and hunt. Americans are going to have to make hard choices about what they value, and something needs to give.

One way to make more room for both is to find ways to share it—and crucially, to learn that age-old art of compromise.

Jay Shepherd is that rare specimen who is trying to forge a path forward amidst the raging battle. He was once the wildlife agency’s wolf conflict specialist. But the endless fighting between ranchers and environmentalists didn’t sit well with Shepherd. And the way the state managed wolves was counterproductive, he tells me one day in his backyard in Chewelah. For instance, the agency once shared openly with ranchers the location data from GPS collars that some wolves wear—data that could help ranchers graze their livestock away from wolf dens, Shepherd says. But, fearing poaching issues, the agency stopped sharing the data, even though the coordinates were three or four days old. “You tell me,” he says, leaning forward, “how you are going to protect cattle from wolves, without knowing where the wolves are?”

Ranchers can be compensated by the state if wolves kill livestock—but only if they first have followed non-lethal measures, without seeing success. Shepherd calls that protocol–developed in 2011 by WDFW—a “slap in the face” to ranchers, who feel the wildlife agency is trying to tell them how to ranch and keep their animals safe. “The ranchers feel completely untrusted,” he says.

In 2019 Shepherd left the agency to join Conservation Northwest, an environmental group, to lead its wolf recovery and coexistence field program. And he founded the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative, which launched a federally-funded pilot program to provide range riders to ranchers—a middle ground alternative for those who did not wish to work directly with the government.

Shepherd is passionate about engaging the community, and employing local people who don’t have a dog in the fight. This attempt at impartiality is key to his success. One of Shepherd’s range riders also works as a waitress in town; another is a hairdresser; a third is a retired state representative. Shepherd is determined, too, to build relationships with livestock producers who might be hostile to WDFW’s efforts, and to introduce them to deterrence methods that don’t involve bullets. Such grassroots work is paying off: The collaborative has grown to 23 riders, despite a warning by a competing operation run by a local cattlemen’s association not to use Shepherd’s group.

One rancher willing to give the collaborative a try is Sam Kayser, whose cattle graze 40,000 acres in the Teanaway Community Forest, 250 miles west of Colville. The rancher has lost four cows to wolf depredations since 2015. The two men met when Shepherd, working for the wildlife agency at the time, investigated the killing of one of Kayser’s cattle. Kayser was reassured by Shepherd’s calm demeanor and genuine intention to find a solution. (Shepherd, who grew up on a wheat farm and cattle ranch outside of Walla Walla, previously helped navigate disputes over endangered sage grouse in Idaho.) Kayser is a pragmatic man who knows his industry has to adapt to live alongside wolves.

“Wolves are a natural part of the ecosystem,” he says, speaking from his ranch outside Kittitas, a small town with one saloon, a large gun store, and a post office. “We have to learn to live with them.”

The collaboration’s working philosophy is simple: When people share information, everybody benefits—including wolves. Each week Shepherd’s riders upload data of wolf locations to a centralized database that he manages. The information comes from many sources. One source is game cameras, which are moved around based on anecdotal sightings. Another source is the locations of cattle. (Some wear GPS collars.) Shepherd also uses suggestions from Deputy Jeff Flood, a law enforcement officer and wildlife specialist from Stevens County, in the state’s wolf-heavy northeast corner, whose job is to reduce wolf conflicts among different groups, and who still has access to WDFW’s data. The wildlife agency has placed radio collars on 35 wolves from 16 packs. Flood passes along this wolf GPS tracking data, along with sightings and other wolf reports. Shepherd then uses the information to pinpoint areas of possible conflict.

Armed with accurate, up-to-date information, the collaborative can then take more precise action to avoid trouble—say, by moving cows out of an area where there is a known wolf den, or putting extra range riders on patrol in a trouble spot. And if wolves don’t kill cows, then there’s less incentive for ranchers to call for killing wolves. Right now, other range riders and livestock producers rarely coordinate with one another in the same way as the collaborative does.

Maletzke, the state agency’s wolf specialist, cautions: “The effectiveness of range riding can be a really difficult metric to assess.” Terrain is variable. Some ranching allotments are in open meadows, others in heavy timber. In short, it’s difficult to know if a wolf has been deterred by a range rider’s presence in an area, or if other factors contribute to a wolf steering clear of livestock, he says. Still, Shepherd hopes the collaboration will continue to prove its worth, and says the state plans to adopt similar methods on a larger scale—although when still remains to be decided.

This method aims to accommodate wolf behavior, rather than fight it. Simply relocating a wolf, or killing it, and then expecting wolves to stay away for good is unrealistic, Shepherd says. “If it’s a good habitat, wolves are going to move right back.” They don’t do so because they’re malevolent. “That’s just the nature and ecology of wolves,” he says.

Shepherd is married to Howe, the teacher and range rider, who rides for the state program. The two met when he came to speak at Howe’s school; they bonded over wolves. They have other things in common, too. Both want to bring peace to the rural community they love. Their work has made them well-known, and not always popular around their home.

Howe recalls one example in 2019, when she found several cows drinking from a stream she often crosses with her horse Billy. (Cows can erode streambanks and pollute water with urine and manure, and are therefore generally restricted from natural waterways.) She reported the incident, as the job required. Authorities curtailed the rancher’s grazing rights at the site. One year later, the rancher and others were still talking about it, and about her. “He thought it was this whole conspiracy theory to get cattle off public land,” she says.

Still, she and Shepherd feel strongly about what they do. “I tell people, it’s state law that wolves have to be here. You have no choice. You have to learn to live with them,” Shepherd says. He wants to be part of that learning process. While the extremes in the debate tend to get the most attention, he believes there’s a quiet but significant number of people who want to see it work, both for wolves and for people.

“I tell people, it’s state law that wolves have to be here. You have no choice. You have to learn to live with them.”

— Jay Shepherd, Conservation Northwest

On a misty morning in Colville, Wes Matlock walks to a rickety red barn with a pail of milk. Cats and their kittens trail him, mewling. “I’m a little embarrassed by how many there are,” he says, yanking open the barn’s flaking wooden door. More felines spill out. He tenderly shuffles them away with the toe of a cowboy boot, to make space for their breakfast.

Matlock represents yet another face in the effort to find ways for wolves and people to harmoniously occupy the same land. Just don’t call him a “range rider.” In the minefield that is wolf politics, the term is a dirty word to some. Range riders, Matlock says, “are very nice folks but they have no skill-set and don’t know what they’re doing.” Matlock calls himself a “cowboy.” He rodeos on weekends, wears boots broken buttery soft through decades of wear, and at his heels sit rusted spurs caked in dust. “I’m a hillbilly,” he says. And, he makes clear, he does not ride for the government.

This last point is key. Many ranchers, hostile to wolves and the state’s efforts at wolf management, have refused help from range riders if they so much as bear the whiff of ties to government or environmental groups. Some even refuse to take compensation from the state when wolves kill their livestock. But these ranchers will accept help from their own kind. Matlock, for instance, rides for a program spearheaded by an industry group, the Cattle Producers of Washington, or CPoW (pronounced Kapow).

Every morning, he puts a pistol, a rifle, a chainsaw, and binoculars in the bed of his pickup. He has a call with Deputy Jeff Flood, to check in and receive any recent updates on wolf movements. Then he heads out.

Matlock’s main wolf-tracking territory is on Diamond M Ranch, the sprawling 2,500-acre spread that sits along the Canadian border 40 miles northwest of Colville. For years, Diamond M has been the epicenter of wolf conflict in Washington. The ranch’s owners claim that wolves kill scores of their livestock annually. Most of those kills are never officially verified. The state has determined, though, that wolves have killed cattle here over the years—enough that the ranch has demanded whole packs be exterminated. And the state has obliged, repeatedly: Of 34 wolves that have been exterminated in the state since 2012, 29 were killed on behalf of the Diamond M ranch, including the entire Wedge pack a few years ago.

Exasperated by his livestock losses, but also mistrustful of the state, the ranch’s owner, Bill McIrvin, a gruff, fourth-generation rancher who sports a bristling handlebar mustache, signed on with CPoW and Matlock, a longtime friend. Matlock is responsible for monitoring much more than just Diamond M, though–his territory sits at around 80,000 acres, which includes McIrvin’s ranch and the land belonging to McIrvin’s uncle.

One October morning in 2020 I climbed into Matlock’s pickup as he headed out on patrol, snaking down a bumpy one-track road between large open fields and looming, craggy mountains. One of Matlock’s jobs, he explained, is to find a dead or injured cow as quickly as possible, so officials can determine whether a wolf was responsible. To be in with a chance of being compensated for the loss and/or having a wolf exterminated by the state, ranchers have to unequivocally demonstrate the wolf was at fault. Proving this means getting to the carcass quickly. Evidence disappears fast once scavengers such as coyotes and vultures begin to feast on the remains. No evidence means no proof for the state to exterminate the offending wolf.

Matlock works hard. A normal day is 12 to 14 hours long, sometimes in this truck, often on horseback. During peak grazing season, from June to October, he often works the whole month without a day off. “I get home and I’m beat. And so is my horse.” For all his hard work, he wonders sometimes how much of a difference he is making. There is so much ground to cover, and so few folks like him.

The cowboy’s truck winds higher into the mountains, across rocky, unforgiving terrain cloaked by tree canopies and shadowed by jagged sandstone peaks. Though he does the same job as other riders, he is a cowboy first, and with that comes loyalty to the ranchers who have hired him. He holds no romance for the animal that he has never seen in the wild, despite so many hours out in the woods.

“A wolf is a vicious damn predator,” he says. “Everybody sees the cute little pictures of a pup sitting on the top of a hill sniffing a buttercup. They’re smart, stealthy and well adapted to humans.” If he saw one, he says, he would shoot it. One less wolf on this planet means one less predator to kill the cows he protects.

In his own way, though, cowboys like Matlock are doing exactly what Shepherd hopes. They are learning how to live with something, as the law requires. They are doing it on their own terms, though, and with their own motivations, an important element for a segment of society that so values personal freedom.

“I get home and I’m beat. And so is my horse.”

— Wes Matlock, Cowboy

In the past two years the federal government’s approach to wolves has veered wildly. The Trump administration delisted the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act, which handed wolf control to individual states. Some states immediately threw open the woods to wolf hunting. During just a few days one winter in Wisconsin, hunters killed more than 200 wolves. At the other end of the spectrum, Colorado passed a ballot initiative to actively introduce wolves to the mountainous state, to join the few animals that have already naturally found their way there.

Then, in February 2022, a federal judge restored protection for the wolves across much of the Lower 48, but not in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The Biden administration has appealed the ruling, aiming to roll back the protections across the remaining states, in a move that enraged environmental groups.

For its part, Washington kept its ban on hunting wolves. And, as the animals continue to find and repopulate their old homes, people are feeling out new ways to live with them. Recently, though, authorities in Washington announced they had found four dead wolves over the winter in Stevens County, not far from the Canadian border. The state has since opened a poaching investigation. Evidently, the old tensions still grumble on in places.

Back in the Colville National Forest, under the quiet shade of pine trees, Howe and her horse, Billy, trot over to her truck after a long morning looking for signs of wolves. What started as a cold October dawn has blossomed into a clear, sunny day, and both rider and horse are thirsty. Howe still has numerous pastures to cover before she can head home for the day. She is tired.

“This is going to be my last year,” she says, voice tinged with regret and resignation. “I can feel it on my body. And I don’t like the conflict, I guess. I just feel I shouldn’t be doing the job if I can’t give it everything.”

She leans forward to pat Billy’s neck. “And I don’t think I can give it everything, anymore.”

Header video credit: Zenstrata / Shutterstock; Lucy Sherriff; crbellette / Shutterstock

Lucy Sherriff

Lauren Owens Lambert

Lucy Sherriff is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Her storytelling covers the environment, social justice, and interesting people. She writes features, directs documentaries, and produces podcasts. Sherriff is particularly interested in reporting on the intersection of planet and people, and how we can coexist in the 21st century.

Ryan Bell

Lauren Owens Lambert

Ryan Bell is an award-winning journalist living in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State. A former cowboy, Bell specializes in examining how agriculture impacts the natural world. He is a two-time National Geographic Explorer for documentary projects in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. His work has appeared in National Geographic, NPR, Bloomberg, VICE, and many other publications. Follow him on Instagram @ryantherange.

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