This is news: Washington state officials have announced plans to kill a pack of at least eight gray wolves that have been attacking livestock in the state's northeast corner.

In and of itself, that announcement isn’t newsworthy. For years, ever since both state and federal agencies began working to re-establish wolves in mountainous areas of the West, it has been necessary to “thin out the packs,” whether due to encroachment into populated areas or because they learn to prey on grazing livestock.

Equally unsurprising, the move will anger some conservation groups and deal a short-term setback to wolf recovery efforts, according to a special report in The Herald newspaper. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials argued that the hunt was necessary to ensure long-term, sustainable, wolf recovery in the state.

State officials said two teams were in the field this week to try to kill members of the Wedge Pack, which ranges over a remote area of Stevens County in the northeast corner of the state. They said that professional marksmen would hunt the wolves from the ground. If that’s unsuccessful, they would resort to the use of helicopters, Phil Anderson, Department of Fish and Wildlife director, said in a statement.

The pack is believed to have killed or injured at least 15 cattle from the Diamond M herd that grazes in a large area of rangeland near the Canadian border, according to the statement. Those attacks have become increasingly more frequent this summer, even after the agency killed a member of the pack in August.

Controlling bad behavior

It’s easy to take sides in the debate over wolf re-introduction and recovery efforts. Considered a threat to both humans and livestock, wolves have been hunted, trapped and poisoned for the first century that settlers poured into the Northwest. By the 1930s, gray wolves were eliminated in Washington but in the last two decades, they’ve migrated back into to Washington from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia. They are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.

According to wildlife biologists, wolves in that area usually favor elk, although deer and moose are more important food sources in some areas. Despite their speed, power and endurance and the fact that they tend to prey on younger, older, and debilitated animals—leaving herds with more animals of prime age and in good health—most wolf hunts are actually unsuccessful.

Therein lies the problem. There are currently five confirmed wolf packs in the northeast corner of the state, usually in forested areas with relatively few open spaces, such as river valleys, where prey are easier to chase and catch.That means livestock, especially cattle and sheep.

“Once wolves become habituated to livestock as their primary food source, all of the wolf experts we’ve talked to agree that we have no alternative but to remove the entire pack,” Anderson said. “By doing that we preserve the opportunity for the recovery of gray wolves in balance with viable livestock operations.”

Here’s the newsworthy part: Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said cattle ranchers must work with the state to find solutions that include nonlethal measures to minimize their losses, including cooperative agreements with the state that could include “caught in the act” permits allowing ranchers to kill wolves to protect their livestock.

Field’s response is to be expected.

What’s unexpected is that Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said that he understands the necessity of removing the cattle-loving wolves. He told the newspaper that he agrees that pack removal is the right action to take.

“There has to be a commitment on the part of all sides to allow wolves to occupy the landscape, while protecting the rancher’s livelihood and maintain their ability to raise cattle,” he said.

Unlike the situation a century ago, we now know that wolves actually benefit both plant and animal ecosystems. Wolf predation prevents overpopulation of grazing animals, helping maintain both plant and wildlife species. For example, when wolves were eliminated from the Olympic National Park in Washington, over-browsing by expanded elk herds caused substantial damage in the forests, including severe declines in small and medium-sized cottonwood and maple trees.

In addition, the availability of wolf-killed carcasses help scavengers, such as bears, foxes, mink, and eagles, by providing a food source during winter when other foods are scarce.

But wolves still take down calves and even full-grown cows, when their food sources become scarce.

Hopefully, environmentalists have evolved as much as the public in appreciating not just the value of wolves, but the need to balance their impact on domestic, as well as wild animals.

Hopefully, of all the issues on which eco-activists and producers disagree, the re-population of wolves—coupled with targeted population control where necessary—is one that can finally be put to rest.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.