The Spokesman Review has the full story, which involves range-riding (or the lack thereof) in northeastern Washington, including on the Colville National Forest.
Two range riders who were supposed to be protecting cattle in Ferry County in 2018 were more than 100 miles away in Spokane, shopping and spending time at the Davenport Hotel, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife investigation that has since been referred to a Thurston County prosecutor.
Meanwhile, environmental groups charge, wolves killed cattle in the area the range riders were supposed to be patrolling, which led in turn to the wolves being exterminated.
As for the range riders themselves, one of them denied in a Friday interview that they neglected their duties at all.
The allegations and denials are the latest chapter in a long and tense saga between those who graze cattle on public lands in Washington and those who support the return of wolves to the area.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is recommending second -degree theft charges be filed against several contract employees tasked with keeping wolves from killing cattle in northeast Washington.
While the amount of money allegedly stolen is small, the investigation highlights the need for stricter oversight of the state’s range riding program and undermines WDFW’s rationale for killing wolves in some cases, said Chris Bachman, the wildlife program manager at the Spokane-based Lands Council….
At its core, the investigation highlights the challenges facing the coexistence of cattle and wolves in the West’s second most populous state.
Each spring, ranchers in northeast Washington send their cattle into the steep and thickly treed Colville National Forest, where most of the state’s more than 120 wolves roam. In a predator-free landscape this was a tenable situation. But since wolves returned to the state in 2008, they have killed cattle each year.
And because of the area’s topography, many traditional nonlethal deterrents – pastures, dogs, lights and colored flags tied to fences – don’t work well. Instead, range riding is widely seen as the most effective nonlethal deterrent.
It’s also the hardest to quantify or manage, even if the idea behind it is simple and ancient: consistent human presence keeps wolves away. In practice, that means riders often spend days or weeks in the woods, out of cell reception. What’s more, riders need to know how wolves and cattle behave, while simultaneously having the skills to live in the woods, ride horses, fix ATVs and more.
It’s a job that is not conducive to timecards.
“There is an expertise there and most people who engage in range riding are not experts and need to be schooled and trained by those who do it professionally,” said wolf expert and advocate Carter Niemeyer in a previous interview with The Spokesman-Review. “Where it gets off to a bad start is there is a pot of money. … People come running and say, ‘How do I get some of it?’ ”
If the state’s investigation is correct, that’s what happened in the case of DS Ranch.
WDFW detective Lenny Hahn first started investigating the DS Ranch on Oct. 15, 2018. At that time, the contract was valued at $352,000 and listed seven different people, including Jolene and Arron Scotten and several of their relatives, some of whom lived together.
According to cell phone records obtained via a search warrant, there were numerous times Scotten and his wife said they were working when they were not. Some of those periods aligned with times when wolves attacked cattle.
And this is where, according to Bachman and several other pro-wolf organizations that provided the records to The Spokesman-Review, the Scottens’ deception cost the state more than just money.
Washington’s lethal removal policy allows for the killing of wolves if they kill or injure livestock three times in a 30-day period or four times in a 10-month period – but only if two nonlethal deterrents have already been deployed.
On Sept. 12, 2018, WDFW announced the planned killing of members of the Old Profanity Territory (OPT) wolf pack after repeated attacks on cattle. According to a news release, the livestock producer had used several nonlethal deterrents, including range riding, calving outside of the wolf pack’s range, delaying the turnout of calves until they were larger (and harder to kill), removing livestock carcasses, and removing sick and injured livestock.
According to WDFW documents, justifying the need to kill some OPT wolves was made partly on the assumption of heavy range rider presence .
Meanwhile, the investigation alleges Scotten and his wife, who rode primarily in the OPT pack area for the Diamond M Ranch, were not working when they said they were.
For instance, on Sept. 4 and 5, 2018, Scotten claimed to have worked a combined 25 hours. But he was actually in Spokane buying building supplies from Ziggy’s Building Materials for a portion of that time, according to the WDFW investigation. During that same two-day stretch, the OPT pack injured two calves and killed one calf.
Just days later, on Sept. 12, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind authorized the killing of members of the OPT pack in response to repeated attacks on cattle.
Six days after WDFW approved lethal removal, Scotten claimed to have worked seven hours. However, according to the investigation, he was in Spokane staying the night at the Davenport Hotel on Sept. 18 and 19. Jolene Scotten also claimed to have worked eight hours on Sept. 19, while phone records place her in Spokane, according to the investigation.
On Sept. 21, WDFW confirmed the OPT pack attacked and injured five calves.
Meanwhile, some at WDFW were questioning the range riding efforts in the area.
“WDFW had concerns with documenting the work by range riders, as staff had not seen the range riders during most field checks or on most trail camera photos,” states a letter sent from a Ferry County WDFW staff member to WDFW’s Region 1 director on Oct. 25, 2018.
The next day, WDFW authorized another round of lethal removal.
In fact, out of 440 15-second videos taken by WDFW trail cameras in the OPT pack area throughout September and October, riders with DS Ranch were only spotted four times.
Those concerns persisted. In notes from a call in July 2019 discussing the OPT pack, employees in the district questioned whether “actual range riding, not just driving on the road” had ever taken place.
“Have never had actual, quality range riding on this landscape,” the notes state. “Daily patrols aren’t doing much.”