BLEWETT PASS, Wash. - You would think it would be easy to find 1,500 sheep grazing near a Forest Service road above Blewett Pass. It's not. We had to wait for sheepherder Heraclio De la Cruz to lead us two miles down a steep mountainside to find the herd.
They were peacefully grazing away there under the supervision of De la Cruz and his half dozen herding and guard dogs.
It was a different scene two weeks ago when De la Cruz's lunch break was interrupted by the howls of a herd dog. He dropped his lunch and, along with the rest of the dogs went to investigate. De la Cruz was about to become one of the first people in the state to have a confrontation with a pack of wolves.
"They were bigger than coyotes," said De la Cruz, who said one of his herd dogs, Gabby, got in between two of the four wolves and was being attacked. De la Cruz fired a warning shot and the wolves raced off.
State Fish and Wildlife biologists investigated and say, based on De la Cruz's eyewitness account and the injuries to Gabby, they have no doubt they had encountered the newly formed Teanaway wolf pack. They suspect the wolves were drawn to the herd area by the scent of a sheep recently killed by a cougar.
De la Cruz's boss, Mark Martinez, says he doesn't know what to expect. Martinez's family has been grazing sheep on Forest Service land in Central Washington for three generations. They are the last of the big operators and they're worried.
"There's always been challenges," said Martinez, "but I don't know if this will be the final challenge that we have to throw our arms up in the air and walk away from it while we still can."
The state is in the process of finalizing a recovery plan for the state's wolves that biologists say migrated in from Canada, Idaho and Montana. The plan will include compensation for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves and if the wolf numbers improve to a stable level, there would be limited hunting and other population control measures allowed. The sticking points are a funding source for the compensation and disputes over how many wolves it would take to form a stabilized population.
Wilderness groups have repeatedly said they support compensation for ranchers. And they respect ranchers' rights to protect their cattle, horse and sheep herds but want them to wait until the wolves reach a healthy population.
The highly anticipated plan is due in December.
Gabby survived her wounds and will be back on the job soon, helping move the sheep down to the winter grazing grounds.