UPDATED DEC. 5, 2011, WITH IMAGES SHOWING APPROVED AMENDMENTS TO WOLF PLAN, AND HOW THOSE IDEAS CHANGED AS THE PLAN PROGRESSED OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS.
For all the controversy over the past five years, the Fish & Wildlife Commission was remarkably united in approving a management and recovery plan for wolves in Washington that also addressed some hunter and livestock owner concerns.
“I think the time has arrived,” said chairwoman Miranda Wecker at about 10:45 this morning, and called for a vote on the 521-page document as her six fellow members had amended it.
There were no nays heard.
She then added, “I think it’s time for a break.”
Over and over throughout the two-hour-and-45-minute discussion leading up to that moment, commissioners used words like “flexibility.” To the final plan that Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife staff sent them in late July, they made a handful of amendments — rejiggering the regional numbers needed to meet statewide recovery goals, jump-starting the downlisting process two ways, further and better clarifying how to address wolf-ungulate conflict, and giving livestock owners more flexibility in dealing with wolves attacking their animals on public ground.
The amendments largely came from a set of revisions the commission was handed after hearing from ranchers and hunters at the first three of the citizen panel’s four public meetings on the wolf plan this past summer and fall. The changes were limited to what was “within” the recommended plan that came out of the Wolf Working Group, state staff work and scientific peer review; larger changes would have opened up the agency to lawsuits.
Watching remotely on TVW, I heard no “nays” during any of the votes on the amendments and final plan. WDFW reports it was approved unanimously.
As for the all-important question of funding elements of the plan such as monitoring how wolves are affecting our herds, the commissioners keyed on the expected late-February 2012 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision on the listing status of wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington. Currently, they’re endangered and under Federal control west of Highways 97, 17 and 395.
Not only will a strong, scientifically based plan show that the state is ready to manage wolves on its own — and provide all regions the same protections — but also possibly lead to Federal grants to help figure out how many are roaming around the state and monitor their production.
Phil Anderson, director of the Department of Fish & Wildlife, said that in discussions with the USFWS, the Feds sounded “anxious to downlist wolves as soon as possible, anxious to turn over management to the state.”
Currently there are five packs and 25 to 30 adults and yearlings. That number will likely rise when end-of-the-year counts are completed. WDFW has also requested more money from the state legislature to support management activities.
Before the final vote, the commissioners voiced their own thoughts, even paraphrasing General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dr. Valerius Geist, the Canadian deer researcher.
Wecker, a resident of Naselle in Southwest Washington, said she found herself conflicted last night and this morning but came to a number of conclusions, including “attaining and retaining management authority for the state.”
She pointed out that currently the state has an “excellent relationship” with USFWS, and called the clusterfunkle of management in the Northern Rockies, which saw wolves exceed recovery goals in 2002 but state management delayed by lawsuits, “absolutely terrible.”
She also outlined what the plan is not.
“It’s not a rejection of communities that live in wolf habitat. It’s unfair to impose costs of wolf recovery on our fellow citizens,” she said.
Vice-chair Gary Douvia, who lives in Kettle Falls and has been active in following up on sportsman requests in his region, made a pair of amendments addressing wolf-ungulate conflicts.
In closing comments, he said he’s particularly concerned about the potential economic impact to his region, among the state’s most productive hunting grounds, and earlier in the meeting stated that there’s a big risk to the department’s cash flow if wolf impacts are too great.
“If we lose these populations and hunters, we’d probably lose 10 to 20 percent of license revenue,” he said.
He said he thinks the state is behind the wolf population.
“In my estimation, what’s most important is to get into the plan,” he said, and constantly allocate more and more resources to it.
David Jennings of Olympia didn’t make any final comments, but noting the commission had “found some rubbing points,” was instrumental in introducing several changes to the plan, including changing the breeding pair requirements from at least 15 breeding pairs over three consecutive years in three regions (five in the eastern third of the state, four in the North Cascades, six in the elk-rich Southern Cascades/Southwest Washington/Olympics) to four-four-four-plus three anywhere in the state.
He also moved to give ranchers lethal take provisions if they catch wolves attacking stock on public grazing allotments at all listing statuses, there had been depredations in the area already and WDFW isn’t available to respond. Previously the first part was only going to be allowed on private ground.
“My logic for amending the recommended plan is that I’ve come to appreciate the high probability of impacts on livestock from wolves,” he said.
Rollie Schmitten, a Lake Wenatchee resident who’s served in various federal roles, said the plan was the most controversial item the commission had dealt with.
He introduced a pair of motions that could give final state delisting a head start. One allows for it to be initiated after a single year when as many as 18 breeding pairs occur across the state, the other to begin a status review prior to reaching the 15 breeding pairs over the three regions for three straight years. Commissioners voiced concern that otherwise, there could be up to a 5-year lag between meeting recovery goals and ultimate state delisting.
Schmitten thanked the Wolf Working Group for their years of toil with state staff in helping craft the recommended plan, then said the commission’s amendments “improved” it and urged the members to vigilantly protect the state’s game herds if need be. He added that the state would “lose control” of the situation if management activities aren’t funded.
He said he supported the amended plan.
Chuck Perry of Moses Lake also supported it, and said his vision for wolf management was a sustainable population balanced with hunting and minimized conflicts with livestock producers.
He called for strong monitoring and research efforts, and developing strong relationships with those in the field with interactions with wolves.
“Washington is not Idaho, it is not Montana. We don’t know how wolves will occupy Washington. We need to be out there monitoring,” he said.
Dr. Brad Smith of Bellingham cited Eisenhower at D-Day — as soon as the boots hit the beaches, the invasion plan wasn’t as important as the whole planning process had been.
He called the plan a “living document; it was living within the past few days.”
He supported it, calling it a “very solid plan that will evolve into an even stronger plan.”
Conrad Mahnken of Bainbridge Island, a former fisheries biologist, questioned all the modeling that went into trying to figure out just how well wolves will do in Washington as well as their true numbers. He said there was “suspicion, which I’m inclined to believe,” there are more out there and called for accelerated efforts to identify them.
He ended with a quote from a Geist essay that has been circulated of late:
The absolutely precious lesson from our North American experience with wolves in the 20th century is that at low wolf-to-prey ratios wolves grow into very large, shy specimens that shun humans, while greatly enriching our landscape and quality of life. Control will be seen as essential to maintain wolves and robust big game populations and minimize intrusions by wolves into human settlements.
He said he believed that was true, and that the plan was better after its amendments.
Everyone seemed to agree that approving the plan is just the beginning of Washington’s wolf odyssey.
That was among the first things noted by Dale Denney, a Northeast Washington hunting outfitter as he provided a play by play on the commission’s discussion at Hunting Washington.
“We are going to get stuck with this plan as amended. It’s too many wolves to start with and there is great risk of herd losses, but at least there are some good added amendments,” he posted as commissioners spoke.
Later, after it all wrapped up, a member known as jshunt, posted his take on the meeting:
“I am concerned that if the WDFW monitors the wolf population and breeding pair status alone, using their limited resources, their assessment may be a significant underestimate of how many wolves and breeding pairs there actually are. My point is: I believe we should find some way to work with the WDFW to ensure the state wolf population and number of breeding pairs is assessed as accurately as possible.”
Jack Field, a member of the Wolf Working Group, executive director of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and frequent speaker at public comment meetings, told the Associated Press that he’d hoped the commission would delay their final vote until after the USFWS delisting decision.
“I’m quite concerned and don’t think the department and the commission have all the information needed to make an educated decision on this,” Field told the AP.
Perry had asked a similar question of state staff, inquiring about the downside of a delay.
The plan would still be there, just not approved, he said.
Anderson, who acted as something of a shepherd for the commission during the meeting, laid out three reasons to vote today, saying it outlined the tools livestock operators would get and enhances the agency’s ability to secure funding from USFWS.
“In conversations all the way to the top, they’re committed to looking hard for funding for us,” he said.
And if there’s no plan, he said that in chatting with USFWS’s chief Washington rep, there’s “virtually little chance if any of changing the listing from endangered to threatened.”
“A plan gets us funding and influence” in the Service’s decision to delist the western two-thirds of the state, he said.
For more from the AP story, go here.
Steve Brown from Capital Press has more from Field and others here.
Conservation Northwest’s Jasmine Minbashian said she was “not enamored” with the final plan — her organization was one member of the Wolf Working Group — but was happy otherwise, calling it a “true compromise” and adding, “It looks like we’ve learned lessons from the Northern Rockies,” and looked forward to helping to finding and monitoring more wolves.”
According to a press release issued by WDFW, the plan goes into immediate effect in the eastern third of the state where Congress voted to delist wolves last spring. The species remains under federal protection and management in the western two-thirds.
And while much of the focus was on the management plan, the associated environmental impact statement bars the state from importing “wolves from other states or seek to increase the wolf population to historic levels under the parameters set for the new wolf management plan.”
For more from WDFW’s news release, go here.
Editor’s note: Our apologies to Commissioner Jennings who was called Kelly instead of his real name, David, in an earlier version of this.