Methow Valley Killing (Almost) Solved As Evidence Points to Unusual Culprits: Wolves

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It was a who done it, albeit not the ordinary kind. The suspects were wolves. The victim a calf. And although the murder hasn't been completely solved, justice is being served.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife this week announced the result of an investigation into a killing on a Methow Valley ranch. "It was not possible to say for certain that wolves caused the injuries that resulted in the death of the calf, although evidence at the scene supports that conclusion," the department said in a statement.

Exhibit A: the rancher's photos of the carcass, which looked to have been devoured by wolves. B: wolf tracks in the area. And C: previous photos of wolves on nearby forest lands taken by motion-triggered cameras.

As a result, the state will pay the rancher $1,500 in compensation. It's the first time such a thing has happened, and it comes as a result of a wolf conservation and management plan adopted by the state last December.

Once extinct in Washington state, gray wolves began coming back several years ago. Unlike in Yellowstone National Park, where conservationists deliberately reintroduced wolves, airlifting them in and then carefully monitoring their development, Washington's wolves have returned of their own accord. The state is trying to encourage their reintegration, while at the same time offsetting inevitable losses by ranchers.

That doesn't mean ranchers are thrilled by the plan--or the reintegration of wolves. "It's very controversial. There is no gray area," says Jack Field, vice-president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. He worries that the plan's target of 15 breeding pairs is too high and points to Idaho, where wolves have proliferated so dramatically after their Yellowstone introduction that the state is now trying to reduce the population.

Last week's Methow Valley calf killing, Field warns, "is the first of many more to come."

He nevertheless says he was happy to see state officials "respond quickly and effectively." Just as at a grocery store shooting, he says, the leads from a wolf killing will dry up if investigators don't arrive in time.

For those rooting the wolves on, the killing also emphasizes that the animals are most assuredly back, something that was in doubt just a year ago. From a Seattle Times story in February of 2011:

But the gray wolf's return to Washington after a 70-year absence has not exactly gone as most expected. At this point, it's not even clear if the state's first pack, the Methow's Lookout Pack, still exists.

Well, Fish and Wildlife note that the killing occurred in an area now used by the Lookout pack. And the department estimates that the state is now home to five packs in all.

See map of wolf pack locations on the next page.

From Fish and Wildlife's website:

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