SPOKANE, Wash. - Wildlife advocates say there has been a distressing uptick in wolf poaching cases in the Northwest in the past year and a half.
Four dead wolves were discovered in the northeast Washington in February. That followed the poisoning of eight wolves in eastern Oregon in 2021, along with the poaching of a total of eight wolves in Idaho last year.
While the numbers are small, they are a big jump over previous years. Oregon had a total of 10 confirmed wolf poachings between 2017-2020. Washington had no confirmed wolf poachings from 2017-2021. Data for 2017-2019 was not available for Idaho, but the state had three confirmed wolf poachings in 2020.
Wolf experts say the actual number of poaching incidents is likely much higher. The cases are difficult to solve because they occur in remote, rural areas where a perpetrator can kill a wolf and bury the body.
"The term ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ is what gets thrown around a lot, and from my conversations, it seems to be pretty engrained in these communities," said Sophia Ressler of the Center for Biological Diversity, which compiled the numbers.
"There is actually science that shows for every confirmed poaching there are likely several additional," Ressler said.
In the Washington case, deputies from the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office discovered four dead wolves on Feb. 18.
The incident report did not find any evidence of bullet holes or physical trauma to the wolves, which suggested their deaths may have been the result of poisoning.
No arrests have been made in the case, despite conservation groups offering a $30,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
The dead wolves were all in the territory of the Wedge Pack, which has been exterminated twice for preying on cattle. But new packs keep forming in what is prime wolf habitat.
Wolves were exterminated in Washington early in the last century at the behest of the cattle industry. Since wolves returned to the state in 2008, there have been numerous conflicts with ranchers.
There were a minimum of 206 wolves and 33 packs in Washington state in 2021, according to an annual survey conducted by state and tribal biologists. Idaho has about 1,500 wolves, while Oregon has about 173.
The Washington case is "pretty distressing and alarming," said Julia Smith, wolf policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. But the number of wolf poaching incidents is still small, she said.
The agency knows that there are a number of undetected wolf poachings, but the numbers must be small, because the total number of wolves keep increasing, Smith said.
Conservationists are outraged about the poisoning of wolves.
"Putting poison out on the landscape for any unsuspecting creature to feed on is one of the most loathsome things a person can do," said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, a national nonprofit advocacy group. "It’s not just about killing wolves. It’s also about wanting them to suffer."
Steph Taylor, president of Speak for Wolves, said Washington has a poaching problem and wildlife managers "need to step up their game in holding these disturbed poachers accountable. Otherwise, this ‘shoot, shovel, shut up’ culture will continue to thrive."
Meanwhile, Oregon wildlife troopers found eight dead wolves between February and July 2021 in the northeastern part of the state. The animals were poisoned, but the deaths remain unsolved.
Last December, Oregon State Police announced they had exhausted all leads in the case and pleaded with the public for help. A $36,000 reward has been posted for information that leads to an arrest.
The Oregon deaths last year included all five wolves from the Catherine Pack, found southeast of Mount Harris, plus three wolves from other packs.
In late 2020, the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the endangered list and stripped their legal protections, citing "the successful recovery of the gray wolf." But in February, the Biden administration restored federal protection for gray wolves in most of the lower 48 states. The decision to re-list gray wolves was hailed as a major conservation victory for the species.
Ressler, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the poaching cases must be solved.
"If poachers are allowed to get off scot-free, it only encourages them to kill again," she said.