After wolf rescue, wildlife agencies admit, ‘We can do better’

Wolves cornered a federal employee in Washington state.

Washington state and federal wildlife managers were apologetic in a meeting last week with Okanogan County commissioners, saying their agencies will try to work better with the county sheriff if another person needs to be rescued from wolves.

Commissioner Jim Detro said Wednesday he’s skeptical and will wait to see whether the comments were more than lip service.

“We’re not going to let up on this at all,” he said. “They broke the trust, and they got caught.”

Events before and after a 25-year-old U.S. Forest Service employee was rescued by helicopter July 12 from wolves in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in north-central Washington state revealed tensions between wildlife agencies and local law enforcement.

Wolves are federally protected in the western two-thirds of Washington. The incident occurred west of the dividing line, which runs through Okanogan County. Although wolves there are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife carries out much of the on-ground management of wolves.

Department employees initially opposed sending a helicopter or a sheriff’s search-and-rescue team for fear of disturbing the pack while it’s rearing pups. The sheriff’s office says wildlife agencies were reluctant to share information, such as the woman’s name or the number of wolves she encountered.

The day after the rescue, sheriff’s Deputy Steve Brown said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Gregg Kurz discouraged him from investigating whether the wolves were a danger to campers and hikers and implied the deputy could be punished for violating the Endangered Species Act. Kurz said he was informing Brown about the federal law, not making a threat.

Fish and Wildlife Service state deputy supervisor Brad Thompson told county commissioners he was sorry for the incident.

“I’d like to apologize to the sheriff’s office if even there was a perception of a threat through conversation with our folks in the field,” he said.

“Are there things we could have done better in hindsight? Absolutely,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we did our best in this case, and we need to do better.”

According to dispatch records, the state Department of Natural Resources was poised to send a helicopter and answer to the Department of Fish and Wildlife later. At the Department of Natural Resources’ request, however, Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello contacted Kurz, who approved the flight.

Reaching the woman on foot would have taken two to three hours, officials estimated. Martorello said state biologists in the area believed wolves positioned themselves to keep the woman from getting any closer to pups, but that sending a helicopter was the right call.

“We can do better,” he told commissioners. “I’m hearing loud and clear the need for greater coordination — federal, state, sheriff’s office, county commissioners, Forest Service — we’re happy to do that.”

County Commissioner Andy Hover said in an interview Wednesday that he appreciated that the agencies acknowledged missteps.

“I’m going to keep on them and tell them if something like this happens again, it’s our sheriff who takes control,” said Hover, a member of the state’s Wolf Advisory Group.

Hover said it was lucky the Forest Service employee was nimble enough to climb a tree and had a satellite phone to call for help from a remote area with no cellphone service.

“I hope this can serve as a wake-up call for the agencies, that things can happen that biologists don’t think will happen,” he said.

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