ANATONE — With a .25-06 rifle cradled in the crook of his left elbow, Jay Holzmiller used his right arm to sweep a spotlight across his pasture, checking his cows and looking for wolves.
He found no predators but something else caught his eye.
“We have a baby,” he said.
It was a wet and sloppy night. Persistent snow during the day turned to rain, making his new nightly routine of checking his herd of about 40 heifers and their newborns every four or five hours an uncomfortable chore.
But it’s one he’s committed to given the circumstances. On Feb. 3, one of Holzmiller’s day-old calves was killed by a lone wolf about 300 yards from his house. The kill was confirmed and attributed to the nearby Grouse Flats Pack by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Monday.
The next night, Feb. 4, three wolves prowled around Holzmiller’s pasture and barn but left his cattle unmolested. Nonetheless, he found wolf tracks within 100 yards of his home.
With assistance from conflict specialists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Holzmiller has since drawn his cattle in closer to his house, deployed a half-dozen fox lights around his calving ground and installed fladry — red flagging dangling from an electric fence. The lights that blink intermittently and the fladry, combined with his frequent patrols, are designed to make wolves uneasy and keep them from returning.
“It would discombobulate things,” Holzmiller said of the red, white and blue lights scattered around his property. “If you can stop it (more attacks) before the habit gets going, you are just way better off.”
He leaned the rifle against the wall of his barn and trudged into his pasture with a small sled to fetch the newborn calf. Once the animal and its mother were safely in the warm barn, he resumed his patrol.
For Holzmiller, waking multiple times a night to check on his herd is something he sees as the new normal for him and other ranchers in the area.
“We’re going to have to step up our games and just be a lot more aware of our surroundings and (Fish and Wildlife) could be part of that if they would do it — look around and watch for wolf sign.”
But it’s not a routine he is happy about. Nor is he pleased to lose an animal to wolves. But he said other ranchers have it worse. His place sits just out of Anatone and his cattle are close to his house and barn, where human activity and human scent are heavy. He can pop out of bed in the dark of night to check his animals with relative ease.
“For other people it’s not so much. There are still people down in the lower country trying to winter cattle out. That is going to be a thing of the past, it just truly is if we don’t get a handle on this thing.”
He thinks wolves showing up at his place indicates they are having a hard time finding natural prey and a symptom of the predator/prey balance being out of whack. He views the situation through dual lenses — that of a rancher worried about his bottom line and as a hunter concerned about deer and elk. If wolf numbers are going to grow, he said the department should put more pressure on other predators.
“You look back eight years and there was but four wolves in the Blues. Now we are north of 20. And the thing of it is, with the mountain lions, the bears and the wolves, when you get the big game herds that depressed, it’s really hard for them to bounce back.”
He said that leaves little for wolves to feed on other than cattle.
“If I can’t run a frickin’ cow right here, where on Earth can I run her? And there again it’s coming back to the hunting deal. There is more and more pressure put upon our hunting. I mean, it’s a threat for a lifestyle, it truly is — both ranching and hunting. I’m not trying to sound victimized, I’m not. It’s just a fact. What we need to do is really look at this realistically so that we manage realistically.
“Are we ever going to take wolves out of the thing? No, the genie is out of the bottle, but we have to get it to the point that we’re not forfeiting one lifestyle for somebody else’s perceived values.”
Most livestock producers keep a low profile when they suffer livestock losses attributed to wolves. By policy, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shields their names from the public. In the past, producers who have either received authorization to shoot wolves or had Fish and Wildlife agents do it for them have received threats.
But Holzmiller, a former Washington Fish and Wildlife commissioner, is taking a different course.
“I’m raising holy hell,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be brought (to light). When these wolves are coming in this close and this tight, people need to know what’s going on.”
If the wolves return, Holzmiller said he won’t hesitate to defend his animals. That means hoisting his rifle to shoulder and trying to take one out.
“Oh hell yes,” he said when asked if he is prepared to shoot a wolf. “I would do it anyway, I’m that kind of guy, but legally I can actually do it because they have in Washington what they call the ‘Caught in the Act’ act. If you catch a wolf harassing your cattle, you can shoot it.”
Wolves are increasing their colonization of Washington. Most packs are concentrated in the state’s northeastern corner, where their interactions with livestock and the state’s response has been controversial. Washington has eliminated about two dozen wolves there over the past few years following attacks on livestock.
But the Blue Mountains in the southeastern corner have also seen wolf depredations. Last year, the alpha female from the Grouse Flats Pack was killed by state wildlife agents after the pack repeatedly killed cattle. Since then, the pack had steered clear of livestock until last week’s confirmed depredation.
For now the agency is content to give nonlethal measures a try, such as the fox lights, fladry and Holzmiller’s actions of putting his animals in smaller pastures close to his house and barn. Holzmiller also wants agency officials to work proactively with other cattlemen in the area.
Steve Pozzanghera, director of the agency’s eastern region based in Spokane, said that is already happening and is part of his agency’s plan to manage wolves as they continue to recolonize the state.
“This is an area we know we’ve got a lot of spring calving to come,” he said. “We need to be reaching out and finding those producers and looking at their operations and talking about things they can do to minimize the chances they are going to have depredations.”
Barker may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.