Even as WDFW begins a status checkup of gray wolves in Washington, state lawmakers are giving hard deadlines for the agency to complete it and for the Fish and Wildlife Commission to decide whether to update the species’ listing.
“We need the department to take this step to officially document how the wolves are faring,” said prime sponsor Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) in a press release yesterday. “I know how my ranchers and communities are faring, and it’s not good. Despite honest efforts on both sides of this issue, folks back in my district are desperate. The state needs to show that it’s listening, it hears them, and is going to start taking their concerns to heart.”
HB 2097, which passed out of the House on Monday, requires the review to be based on statewide wolf numbers and scientific data to determine if the “population is no longer in danger of failing, declining, or no longer vulnerable to limited numbers, disease, predation, habitat loss or change, or exploitation.”
The bill must still pass the Senate, where this morning it was introduced and referred to the natural resources committee, and be signed by Governor Inslee, but under it WDFW’s work would have to be finalized by the end of next February and its citizen oversight panel need to reconsider the state endangered status of wolves by August 31, 2020.
A status review is one of two ways under the Washington Administrative Codes’ “delisting criteria” that a species can be taken off state ESA lists.
Endangered, threatened, and sensitive wildlife species classification.
The commission shall delist a wildlife species from endangered, threatened, or sensitive solely on the basis of the biological status of the species being considered, based on the preponderance of scientific data available.
A species may be delisted from endangered, threatened, or sensitive only when populations are no longer in danger of failing, declining, are no longer vulnerable, pursuant to section 3.3, or meet recovery plan goals, and when it no longer meets the definitions in sections 2.4, 2.5, or 2.6.
The other is by meeting benchmarks set by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. With wolves, that 2011’s management plan, approved before recovery really got going. Under it, there needs to be either 15 or 18 successful breeding pairs in various parts of the state for certain periods of time.
WDFW has been estimating that that would occur somewhere around 2021, give or take.
Where the latter criteria is essentially a “measuring stick” for how close wolves are to reaching the wolf plan’s predetermined numerical figures, the former considers the “robustness” of the actual population. The most recent annual count did find nearly 15 breeding pairs, though almost all were in one single recovery region.
Indeed, there can be no doubt that pack goals have been reached in Kretz’s district — Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry Counties and northeast Okanogan County — but his initial bill’s possible regional delisting wording was stripped out as it moved through the legislature’s lower chamber after its Feb. 19 introduction.
Still, the unanimous 98-0 vote was a good sign for ranchers, hunters and others concerned about growing wolf numbers.
The bill also includes provisions for WDFW to study how wolf recovery in the state’s federally delisted eastern third is affecting recolonization elsewhere.
While a fringe out-of-state pro-wolf blog is already claiming the goal posts are being moved, page 68 of the wolf plan also states that if 2011’s population models turn out to be wrong, “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.”
And the bill would continue efforts in Ferry and Stevens Counties to deal with wolf-livestock conflicts, and create a grant program for using nonlethal deterrents in all of Eastern Washington.
“In many ways, the state has drug its feet in addressing my constituents’ concerns regarding the wolf issue,” said Kretz in the press release. “The state needs to step up financially and assist with the problems it has created, or at the very least, neglected.”
Paula Swedeen of Conservation Northwest said she appreciated lawmakers commitments to recovering wolves and providing enough funding for wolf-livestock conflict avoidance work, what she called “a significant positive step for both wolves and ranchers.”
“This allows for more social tolerance to be fostered across the state, including in the rural areas where wolves are already abundant. There is robust discussion about increasing the effort to promote coexistence in areas where livelihoods are affected by wolf recovery,” she said in a statement.
It all comes as US Interior Department Acting Secretary David Bernhardt last week said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would soon propose removing gray wolves from ESA protections in the western two-thirds of Washington and elsewhere in the Lower 48.
WDFW has long maintained it is ready take over managing wolves across the state.
Kretz has introduced numerous wolf bills in the state legislature, some more serious than others. It appears this latest one has a good head of steam and could pass.