The helicopter shooting of a wolf in northeastern Washington didn’t go as planned. A sharp shooter took out the livestock-killing pack’s alpha female, jeopardizing the entire pack's chances of survival.
The so-called Huckleberry wolf pack repeatedly attacked a herd of sheep in August, killing at least 24 sheep. Non-lethal attempts to keep the wolves away from the sheep in Stevens County were unsuccessful. That prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to authorize the killing of four wolves.
Biologists had wanted to avoid killing the pack's main breeding pair -- the alpha male and alpha female -- since that would keep the pack's structure together and improve the chances that new pups would eventually join the pack.
A sharpshooter in a helicopter shot one wolf from the pack on Aug. 23. From the air, officials said, it wasn't clear that the wolf was the alpha female. The 3-year-old wolf was small for an alpha female, weighing 66 pounds, said Nate Pamplin, WDFW's assistant wildlife program director.
"This is an unfortunate development that we learned that the alpha female had been removed," Pamplin said in an interview Friday.
Pamplin said wildlife officials hope another pack member will step into the alpha role.
The Huckleberry Pack had pups this year, Pamplin said. Those pups are now weaned.
"It will likely be that other pack members will assist in providing the nutrition and hunting capabilities for the pack," Pamplin said.
Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Conservation Northwest, said the Huckleberry Pack is one of Washington's most productive breeding packs.
Friedman said even though lethal removal may sometimes have to happen, it should only happen infrequently.
“Because bad things are going to happen -- shoot the wrong wolves at times, just like this. We have to do everything we possibly can to avoid these situations,” Friedman said.
The Stevens County Cattlemen's Association estimates damage to the sheep herd will cost more than $5,000. The rancher has moved his 1,800 sheep herd to another pasture.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has halted the Huckleberry shootings and will continue to monitor the pack.