OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The collar around its neck was supposed to lead biologists to a better understanding of how an alpha male wolf leads its pack.
Instead, that GPS collar is what sharpshooters in a helicopter used to track down and kill the followers of the Wedge Wolf Pack in northeast Washington state. And on Thursday, after leading most, if not all, members of its young pack to their deaths, the alpha male was shot and killed.
State Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson said the decision to the kill the pack was the hardest decision he's made professionally and personally.
"Going out there and killing wildlife is not what this agency is all about," said Anderson.
But Anderson said he had no choice. The Wedge Pack of wolves that was officially designated just three months ago had a habit of attacking livestock. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists confirmed 17 attacks on cattle owned by the Diamond M Ranch and grazing on the Colville National Forest.
Experts advised the agency that once wolves develop that habit, it is almost impossible to break. The agency tried to break the habit by shooting one adult member of the pack last month. But they said the attacks on cattle continued, and last week Anderson made the decision.
Sharpshooters shot five wolves this week and on Thursday ended the hunt when they shot the alpha male. Anderson said there may be other members of the pack out there, but -- with the loss of both the alpha male and female -- he believes there is no longer a threat to cattle.
Critics of the decision, including the rescue and rehabilitation group Wolf Haven, called the decision a tragedy. Director Diane Gallegos said they had hoped to see more of the wolves trapped and collared so biologists would know which ones were actually attacking cattle and remove just them.
The Wedge Pack, named because it roamed a wedge shaped section of Washington state framed by the Kettle and Columbia rivers, is gone, but few believe the wedge will be without a pack for long. Experts said, with plentiful deer, elk, and other prey animals, it is perfect wolf habitat.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and wildlife groups say the next time they hope to work better with ranchers in the area to keep wolves from preying on cattle to begin with.