Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioners want to take a look at whether WDFW’s 2011 wolf management plan is actually working in a key area and if it could be tweaked.
Two somewhat unlikely commissioners — at least judging by conventional wisdom standards — led the charge too.
They’re Jay Kehne, the Conservation Northwest staffer based in Omak, and Kim Thorburn, the Spokane birder.
They made their thoughts known last Saturday morning during the commission’s annual briefing on the state of the state’s wolves, which showed that at the very least we had 122 in 22 packs, including 14 successful breeding pairs at the end of 2017, all increases over 2016 but which also did diddly squat for reaching state delisting goals.
Kehne then Thorburn spoke up right after WDFW staffers displayed a map showing the 2017 dispersal paths of seven telemetry-collared Evergreen State wolves — animals that went every which way but in the one direction that’s actually needed to help meet current recovery benchmarks.
“They’re not dispersing south,” lamented Thorburn.
One wolf, a Smackout female, took a 1,700-mile trek the wrong direction entirely.
It went from Stevens County southeast across North Idaho into Western Montana before cutting back southwest all the way to Riggins, Idaho, then south to Boise, east across the northern edge of the Snake River Plain, checked into West Yellowstone then literally walked off the map on a southeasterly bearing towards central Wyoming.
Same thing with a Loup Loup wolf.
It took a 540-mile hike through the Okanogan north into southern British Columbia, with a last ping recorded somewhere east of Kelowna.
True, 2017 did see the capture of the first Western Washington wolf in modern times, in eastern Skagit County, and three years before that the first roadkill west of the crest, recovered east of North Bend, so it’s highly likely that other wolves without GPS devices are lurking elsewhere in the Cascades, steadily moving from east to west, north to south, as WDFW often likes to say.
But modeling and assumptions made as far back as nearly a decade ago during development and passage of the wolf management plan — not to mention a March 2014 prediction by then Director Phil Anderson that we could see recovery goals met as soon as 2021 — are now under scrutiny.
“The plan is excellent. It was well done. It was based on science, based on input from stakeholders. However, it was a plan,” Kehne said during a phone interview with Northwest Sportsman earlier today.
Pointing to the example of adaptive management of Columbia River salmon fisheries, what Kehne says he’s asking for is a check-up on whether the wolf plan is working the way commissioners and WDFW staffers thought it would when it was put together in 2008, ’09, ’10 and approved in early December 2011.
With very little information about where wolves would actually settle in in Washington, data from other sources was used to create maps of where colonization was most likely to occur and thus the three recovery zones.
One hundred years from now it might be a different story, but so far Canis lupus has done fantastically well in some of the toughest possible habitat to wear a wolf suit, and very poorly in some of the best.
The northern edge of the state’s biggest elk herd’s range is a valley away from the Teanaway wolves, and yet the pack doesn’t appear to give two howls about it. Meanwhile, their cousins are snuggling up with northeastern ranchers’ stock.
Kehne pointed to page 67 of the plan, which notes that “The expectation is that over time, as wolves recolonize Washington, WDFW will be able to collect data from within the state to determine whether the model assumptions are appropriate.”
The thought continues on page 68:
“If future data reveal that the population dynamics of wolves in Washington are significantly different from those used in the model, these conclusions will need to be reevaluated. Incorporating wolf demographic data specific to Washington will allow WDFW to update predictions of population persistence during wolf recovery phases and to revise the recovery objectives, if needed.”
I’m no mathematician, but I do pay attention to probabilities (which I use to collect more than my share of fivers from coworkers during the NFL season) and I now think the odds of having four successful breeding pairs in the South Cascades — where there currently are no known wolves (but likely are) — for three straight years (as required under the plan) by the end of 2021 are very long at best.
I wouldn’t put much more money on four there plus four in the North Cascades and 10 elsewhere in any single year — the recovery shortcut — by 2021 either.
But if I’m wrong, hell, feed me to ’em.
Meanwhile, wolf numbers in the state’s upper righthand corner — where no less than 75 percent of the population, 16 of the packs and 12 of the breeding pairs occur — continue to grow.
“We’ve been hearing from Northeast Washington for years now, ‘We’re overrun with wolves,'” said Kehne during the commission meeting. “At first we thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re just new there and they’re not used to them.’ But they are overrun with wolves. Southeast Washington will be sooner or later full up on their quota of wolf packs.”
“We’re there,” Commissioner Jay Holzmiller of Anatone interrupted him briefly to say.
Earlier this week, Conservation Northwest described Jay Kehne’s role with the organization, telling this magazine that while Kehne is an employee, he has not been involved in its wolf work since late 2017 and instead is focusing his efforts on a Columbia Basin sagelands initiative.
“His role on the commission is entirely independent of his work at CNW and he has every right to express opinions that are not reflective of his employer’s positions,” said spokesman Chase Gunnell.
A statement that Conservation Northwest also posted online after the meeting defended the existing wolf plan and said it “is better left as is until recovery goals are achieved.”
The statement also said that the Wolf Advisory Group, which it is heavily engaged in, will begin discussing what comes after delisting goals are met “and will be advising the Department on how to incorporate new science as well as how to design a fair and inclusive public process for future wolf conservation and management.”
Kehne, who is a hunter and retired from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that with state legislators just having granted WDFW $183,000 in the budget to look into the SEPA process for translocating wolves around the state, staffers should tack on also doing so for making a couple “simple changes” to recovery map boundaries.
“I guess what I feel now is, we’re at recovery, we just don’t meet it by definition that we established seven years ago,” he said during the commission meeting. “And that bothers me because there’s people that come to these meetings, you know, and tell us their stories about losing livestock. And that’s all part of wolf recovery, but I’m really hearing that and it’s bothering me at this stage of the game that we can’t make, at least look into, could we make an adjustment, not be afraid of it, if it made sense?”
Thorburn thought so.
“Getting back to the initial modeling assumptions, everybody involved in the plan development says, ‘We didn’t expect this pileup in Northeast Washington. We expected the dispersal to be a little more spread out.’ And it really has created that social pressure, despite all of the outstanding work by (WDFW) staff,” she said.
Commission Vice Chair Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon said he was also on board with having a report prepared for the citizen oversight panel, though Commissioner Barbara Baker of Olympia cautioned that opening the wolf plan was a “can of worms.”
So as Saturday’s meeting came to a close, a “blue sheet” request from Kehne was put to a vote.
It asks WDFW to prepare a briefing on “administrative options for conserving wolves including (not limited to): updating the 2011 wolf conservation and management plan; targeted narrow change to wolf conservation and management plan recovery boundaries and names to better reflect current recolonization in our state; translocation and postdelisting management plan.”
It passed 8-1, with Baker voting against it, and is expected to be ready by the commission’s August meeting.
Editor’s note, March 23, 2018, 9:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this said that the blue sheet request had passed unanimously, per the commission office, but according to a spokesman the vote was 8-1.