SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — One wolf has been killed by a hunter hired by Washington, a state where the animals have been regaining a foothold in recent years after being hunted to extinction in the early 1900s.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife said hunters were back out Monday, targeting three more wolves in the Huckleberry Pack to protect sheep in rural southern Stevens County.
Wolves from the Huckleberry Pack this month have killed 22 sheep and injured three more, despite preventive measures, the agency said.
Environmental groups oppose the hunt.
Wolves began moving back into the state in the early 2000s from Idaho and Canada, and they are protected under state and federal law. The state exterminated an entire pack of wolves to protect a herd of cattle in mountainous Stevens County in 2012.
The most recent hunt is designed to protect a herd of 1,800 sheep owned by Dave Dashiell of the town of Hunters, located about 50 miles northwest of Spokane.
"Unfortunately, lethal action is clearly warranted in this case," said Nate Pamplin, the agency's wildlife program director, on Monday. "Before we considered reducing the size of the pack, our staff and Mr. Dashiell used a wide range of preventive measures to keep the wolves from preying on the pack."
Non-lethal activities are continuing, he said.
Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity said the hunt proves the state prefers to kill the wolves.
"The department has never been interested in making sure sufficient non-lethal conflict measures are in place," Weiss said. "They have wanted to gun for these wolves from the start."
The state could have used rubber bullets or paintball rounds to harass the wolves, but instead resorted immediately to airborne snipers, she said.
On Saturday, crews found five dead and three injured sheep that were attacked Friday night or early Saturday morning, the agency said. Investigators confirmed that wolves were responsible for all of the attacks.
On Saturday evening, a marksman contracted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife killed one member of the pack from a helicopter. The agency has authorized killing three more wolves from the pack, which contains about a dozen wolves.
Wolves were driven to extinction in Washington in the early 1900s by a government-sponsored eradication program on behalf of the livestock industry. Their population has grown to at least 52 wolves today.
Some ranchers and hunters vehemently oppose the return of the wolves, saying the animals prey on livestock and deer populations.
The current situation in Stevens County meets all of the agency's conditions for lethal removal, Pamplin said. That includes repeated wolf kills; the failure of non-lethal methods to stop the predation; the attacks are likely to continue; and the livestock owner has not done anything to attract the wolves.
Dashiell has maintained a continual human presence with his flock since Aug. 14, when the Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the first wolf attacks. He has used four large guard dogs to safeguard the pack and has buried sheep carcasses whenever possible, the agency said. Up to four Department of Fish and Wildlife employees and two range riders also have helped watch the flock.