Looking Down The Road On Washington Wolves

Two conversations in Olympia on wolves over the past week will serve as sparks for discussions state residents will have in the coming years about future management of the four-legged predators, while a new study will add meat to understanding the impact they have on deer and elk in Washington.

Hunters and livestock producers have been there for awhile, but as a Fish and Wildlife Commissioner recently put it, while the species is technically still recovering statewide, they’ve already done so in Washington’s northeastern quarter, where 16 of 19 known packs roam.

Is it time to manage those differently than the few roaming elsewhere?


At the very least, with the wolf management plan having been considered, written and approved at a very different moment in the recolonization of the state by Canis lupus, and with the potential for packs to meet benchmarks by 2021 or so, it’s time to crack that opus open and plan for recovered populations.

FOR WHATEVER REASON, wolves have not moved very fast down the Cascades, nor west across the crest. Asked point blank yesterday by a state legislator if there are any packs south of I-90, key to achieving recovery goals, a WDFW official said there weren’t.

But meanwhile, packs in Ferry, Okanogan, Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties are prospering as well as depredating, leading to increasing conflicts with ranchers and others.

That led Rep. Joel Kretz et al to propose House Bill 1872, which would direct the Fish and Wildlife Commission to delist wolves from state Endangered Species Act protections in those four counties.

“We’re well recovered,” said Kretz, a Republican who lives in eastern Okanogan County’s mountains, during a public hearing before Rep. Brian Blake’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday afternoon.

Kretz has introduced several wolf bills over the years — one as a tongue-in-cheek gesture tweaking Westsiders — but he said this latest one was narrowly focused and has some precedence in the form of cougar removals for public safety.

He acknowledged the success WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group has had building relationships among disparate stakeholders, but said he wanted to be able to return to his district and Northeast Washington this spring with something a little more concrete than “a couple truckloads of fladry.”

Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat and hunter, later said he supports the bill but it won’t move forward this session. He explained he wants to give the WAG “a little more time” to work.

The group, comprised of hunters, livestock producers, wolf advocates and others, came together last year on a set of protocols for removing problem wolves, and stuck with it as WDFW took out members of the calf-killing Profanity Peak Pack last summer — despite high heat from outside wolf fanatics and inflammatory instate press.

Even so, several WAG members were split yesterday on HB 1872.

Conservation Northwest, the Humane Society of the United States and two Westside residents were against, while the Farm Bureau, Washington Cattlemen’s Association and Stevens County’s Wes McCart and Dave Dashiel were in favor.

WDFW also chimed in.

Statewide wolf manager Donny Martorello said the agency was “respectfully opposed” to the bill in favor of continuing to follow the 2011 wolf management plan.

“That being said, we do believe it’s time to begin the discussion for reviewing the plan,  talking about adaptive changes and even postdelisting management,” he added. “It’s been nearly six years since the plan was adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and it was intended to be an adaptive document.”

That will be a challenge given the make-up of the state’s residents, Martorello told the committee, but he felt that the WAG pathway would build a “solution that is durable and lasting,” and limit the pendulum swings of management shortcuts that “are not good for Washingtonians and are not good for animals.”

He says with it having taken five years to come up with the original wolf management plan, “it will take a significant amount of time” to update it, so it’s time now to start discussing things.

ONLY TWO CURRENT Fish and Wildlife Commissioners were on the oversight board back in December 2011 when the plan was unanimously approved — former chair Miranda Wecker and current chair Brad Smith.

They were among the citizen panel members who last Friday afternoon listened as Martorello and several others talked about managing wolves and people.

Their hour-long presentation included a discussion that gingerly reviewed several different scientific papers that looked at the effects of poaching and lethal control.

We nonscientists tend to see the latest paper as The Final Word, especially when it validates our opinions, but WDFW’s wolf biologists consider them to be building blocks.

“How one values wolves also influences what one perceives as being good science, because no matter your viewpoint of wolves, there’s gonna be science to support it,” said WDFW wolf specialist Scott Becker. “Wolves are one of the most studied animals on the planet and there are more scientifically peer-reviewed publications written about wolves and wolf management than almost any other species on Earth.”

Consistent management is key, he said. When people know what’s coming, they’re more likely to accept that.

WDFW’s game plan is to continue to “normalize” wolves, to manage for the population and not the individual, and treat them like any other species on the landscape, Becker said.

The presentation gave commissioners ideas to chew on, and they offered some immediate reactions.

Smith wasn’t so sure that wolves were like other species, pointing to centuries of demonization and papal decrees.

But Kim Thorburn likened the normalization of wolves to what she experienced as a physician during the HIV/AIDs epidemic, which saw “AIDs exceptionalism” that led to the disease being treated differently than other health issues.

“In order to accomplish normalizing (wolves), all of us are going to need to take some bold steps that just start changing some of those approaches to make wolves more like all the other animals that we manage,” said Thorburn. “The same thing we did with HIV — it’s now pretty normal.”

Wolf advocates have a big job ahead of them on that front — “There is some concern that if wolves are delisted at the state level, wolf hunting could become legal in Washington,” frets a KUOW story about HB 1872.

Well, duh, they’re not unicorns, rather the southwestern edge of a massive population across North America that’s hunted everywhere else they’re delisted and yet are still thriving.

On the flip side, listening to testimony during the public hearing on the bill, it’s clear that even those affected most by wolves, northeast producers, accept that they’re a part of the landscape, effective normalization of the predators’ presence, if not exactly wanted.

Wecker spoke to coming challenges in the years ahead.

  • Increasing numbers of wolves moving into the federally listed area where the state has no management authority, and;
  • Onto private ground as packs run out of room on federal and state lands;
  • And the potential for more inconsistent management due to polarized national politics.

“On top of that, what really is going to be hugely difficult is dealing with the impacts of wolves on ungulates and the expectations we have raised to our hunting community — the importance of hunters in our financial picture,” Wecker said. “All of those things create this train coming at us that’s going to be really difficult for us, because of just difficulties with the science, the litigiousness, the polarization. So as we try to tackle this goal that we have of managing wolf populations to protect ungulates or hunter opportunity, it’s just going to get that much more difficult … I welcome the idea of looking again at the wolf recovery policy/plan. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Some of what Wecker spoke to — predator-prey impacts — should be fleshed out in a new study launched this winter in North-central and Northeast Washington.

Over the next five years, WDFW and UW biologists hope to keep a couple hundred radio collars on whitetails, mule deer, elk and cougars to see what impact wolves are having on those species as well as across different landscapes. It could provide key scientific data … depending on your viewpoint, of course.

I’ll end this with some of the thoughts of Commissioner Jay Kehne, the Omak-area resident who is also a part-time staffer for Conservation Northwest.

He cautioned commissioners against cherry-picking science that supported one view or another, said that the frustration Northeast Washington residents are feeling is real and can’t be ignored, and spoke to the convergence of carrying capacity and social tolerance that is key for communities and the critters of the day.

“We eventually will have to take everything that is provided through science, as well as on-the-ground, real-life stories from conflict specialists, from our biologists, from the latest research coming out, because it’s a tough decision. We’ve got to think of this whole concept of one part of our state is at recovery, and yet what is required there might be different and yet we can’t necessarily have a regional delisting, but possibly there’s ways to manage that population at a different level.”

A convoluted (off-the-cuff) statement, certainly, but apropos for a complex situation to manage.

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