Calling it one of the “most remarkable” successes in the recovery of endangered species, federal wildlife officials this morning proposed to remove gray wolves from U.S. protections in the western two-thirds of Washington and Oregon — a move supported by state officials there — as well as most of the rest of the country.
“Gray wolves no longer face the threat of extinction or require the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe in a teleconference with reporters.
Pointing to their growth in the Northwest in recent years, he also said they would remain under state protections and management. He expressed strong support for the abilities of state managers, who even now have teams in the field working on the species and with livestock operators, to handle the responsibility.
At the end of 2012, there were at least 51 wolves in Washington and 45 in Oregon. Earlier this week we reported that at least half of the former state’s 10 packs are believed to have had pups this spring.
Today marks the beginning of a 90-day public comment period on the proposal; a final decision is expected next year.
It means that, if it takes effect, it provides ODFW and WDFW more flexibility for managing the animals uniformly in their jurisdictions. Right now, USFWS is officially the lead agency for dealing with depredations roughly west of Highways 97, 17, 395, 78 and 95, though WDFW is acting on their behalf in Washington.
Wolves east of that line in both states were delisted Congressionally in May 2011.
In Washington, recovery requires at least 15 successful breeding pairs. Four must be in the eastern third of the state — where there are already seven known packs and two more suspected ones — four must be in the Northern Cascades (where there are three packs) and four in the Southern Cascades/Northwest Coast region (where there currently aren’t any known packs), plus three more anywhere in the state, for three consecutive years. Alternatively, if 18 pairs occur in certain numbers in any single year, it could also trigger delisting.
Oregon requires at least four breeding pairs in the eastern third of the state for three straight years before recovery can be considered there — with six such pairs last year, 2012 represented the first year towards that goal.
Ashe said the delisting proposal came from field staff and was not affected by outside pressures.
Earlier this spring, there was a momentary pause in what felt like the certain coming of a delisting when wolf advocates argued in a letter to Ashe that those in the Northwest should qualify as a distinct population segment.
In a blog, Ashe said, “Due to our steadfast commitment, gray wolves in the Lower 48 now represent a 400-mile southern range extension of a vast contiguous wolf population that numbers more than 12,000 wolves in western Canada and about 65,000 wolves across all of Canada and Alaska. Canadian and U.S. wolves interact and move freely between the two nations.”
He added they do not have to occur everywhere across their former range.
“Of course, the gray wolf is not everywhere it once was, nor can it be; think Denver, or Minneapolis, or Salt Lake City, or even the now grain- and livestock-dominated American Plains. It’s not everywhere it can be, but our work has created the potential that it may be one day,” he wrote.
The Associated Press reported that wolf expert David Mech with the U.S. Geological Survey said that wolves inhabit about 80 percent of the ground they could be expected to in today’s United States.
The decision was supported by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“The wolf recovery plan was highly successful and the science behind it remains very strong and credible,” said president David Allen in a press release.
Calling USFWS’s announcement “timely,” WDFW’s wolf manager Donny Martorello said that Washington was very well positioned to take over wolf management.
He pointed to the statewide plan and Governor Jay Inslee’s signing of SB 5193, which will provide $1.5 million for wolf work over the next two years.
“That plus our plan plus wolves on their way to recovery puts us in a good position,” Martorello said.
Currently, WDFW is attempting to capture wolves in the Lookout Pack territory, which for the first time since 2010, appear to have pups. After that, they will move on to the Wedge and Ruby Creek areas, then the Wenatchee Pack this summer, he says.
Martorello says he has four crews out working with more personnel in reserve in case things get hot this summer.
Key support for the compromise that led to passage of SB 5193, as well as allowed Washington residents in the eastern third of the state to kill wolves attacking their pets, came from Republican John Smith of Colville.
“It is a good thing when the federal government can relinquish control back to the authority of the state,” he said in a press release. “Local is always better in my mind.”
A press release from USFWS includes quotes from Oregon and Washington wildlife managers:
” With a solid state conservation and management plan in place for the northern gray wolf, an experienced wildlife management agency that is committed to wolf recovery, and established populations recovering at an increasing rate, Oregon is ready to take on further responsibility for wolf management in this state,” said Roy Elicker, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We know that there are questions that need to be resolved in moving toward a delisting of the northern gray wolf under the federal ESA, and we believe the rulemaking process is an appropriate forum to address these issues. Oregon is supportive of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publishing a proposed rule to begin this dialogue, and we look forward to participating in the scientific review process.”
“The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is firmly committed to the long-term persistence of wolves in Washington,” said Miranda Wecker, chair of her state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. “The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission believes the state should be responsible for the management of wolves and supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s consideration of delisting gray wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act. By publishing the proposed rule, the Service ensures this important consideration can take place in an open and public process.”
The federal agency’s decision was panned by a wolf advocate who said it was bowing to political pressure.
Editor’s note: From the perspective of a reporter covering the Northwest wolf beat and wildlife issues throughout the region, I’m extremely confident that the personnel at ODFW and WDFW will continue to professionally, scientifically and socially handle the continued recovery of the species in the years to come, and eventually set up limited, well-managed hunts. Recent compromises in both states point to our ability to deal with wolves as grown-ups, and I hope that the crazed wolf groups do not use today’s proposal to continue the divisive and ill-advised litigation seen in the Northern Rockies which delayed delisting there, and which has the potential to drive wildlife and wildland advocates of all stripes apart in our two states.