Some days are more surreal than others. Take the recent one where I found myself emailing at the same time with two men on polar opposites of the wolf issue in Washington.
Well, subarctic opposites at the very least — like Patagonia and the Yukon Territory.
One is the head of a regional conservation organization that has been heavily involved in trying to aid Canis lupus recovery in the Evergreen State.
The other is a veteran hook-and-bullet journalist who will remind you that the very term “conservation” — and the wealth of critters we have around today — began with hunters.
I won’t even open the Pandora’s box of their tree-sitting, gun-toting, carbon-sequestering, liberal-bashing politics, but they actually have more in common than either would be comfortable admitting publicly (and probably even off the record).
Both want lots of critters (some much more so than others) and lots of habitat for them, both are leery of a proposal to expand North Cascades National Park, both wear hunter orange come fall, neither filled their elk tag this season, and both were impressed with the story of Kari Hirschberger, the Methow Valley woman who in mid-September was confronted and followed by two adult wolves while scouting for High Buck season — an unnerving encounter that nonetheless ended without any shots fired though they probably should have been for the safety of all parties.
And while the outcome the two men hope for is different, they’ll both be watching the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission very closely later this week as it decides on a final wolf management plan/environmental impact statement.
The seven-member panel will discuss the 521-page document amongst themselves this Saturday morning and then come to a decision.
That’s what it says on their agenda anyway.
The day before I traded emails with the above gents, I was on the phone with Miranda Wecker, chairwoman of the commission. She hesitated to predict what her fellow members would do, and sounded like she still had more questions than answers about the plan herself.
“We understand the significance of the issue,” Wecker said, then added, “There are reasons we should go forward and vote, and there are reasons that give us pause to accept this plan given the degree of concern in the hunter and livestock-producer communities.”
IT’S BEEN A LONG FIVE YEARS, ONE MONTH AND 27 DAYS since Fish & Wildlife put out a call for nominees to join “a citizen working group that will guide the department in developing a conservation and management plan for gray wolves in Washington.”
Seventeen people representing a wide spectrum of interests — ranchers, sportsmen, biologists, wolf advocates, among others — joined up and went to work.
Since then dozens of meetings have been held across the state, 43 peer reviewers have picked through draft plans, scores of he said-she said newspaper articles have appeared, hundreds of passionate speeches have been made by both sides, and tens of thousands of emails and form letters have flooded Olympia.
Also showing up in the state, at least five wolf packs, two in the Cascades, three in Northeast Washington.
Crossing the borders right behind the wild canids, all the angst, extraordinary hate and star-struck sentimentalities that have brewed in the Northern Rockies since wolves began filtering back into Northwest Montana in the 1980s and the Feds brought five and a half dozen from BC and Alberta into Central Idaho and Yellowstone in the mid-1990s.
There are now pro Washington wolf pages and anti Washington wolf sites. A “member” of the Lookout Pack tweets while an “alpha male” prowls a hunters’ forum. Every time WDFW posts something wolfish on its Facebook page, both sides rush in with foaming torrents of words.
Cuddle and coddle!
Almost completely drowned out, voices of reason, sanity and moderation.
For her part, Wecker said she didn’t follow development of the draft plan very closely, though some members attended some meetings and reported back.
But last summer, as the group received the final recommendations from WDFW staff, the debate was right in front of them. Four public meetings later, they’re fully engaged.
“It’s by far the most contentious issue since I’ve been on the commission,” said Wecker, who was appointed in May 2005. “People feel passionately on both sides. There are those who believe they were extirpated for a good reason. And there are those who see them as important and part of the wilderness. There’s so much uncertainty, such different viewpoints. It’s the toughest one we’ve ever had to deal with.”
ONE QUESTION WECKER HAS IS, how will wolves do in Washington. It’s the $64,000 question: As much work as has gone into it, there’s no clear answer — computer modeling can only tell us so much at this early stage.
After diving into the issue in summer 2008 (when the first confirmed pack in 70 years took up residence in the Methow Valley, where I deer hunt) and talking with a number of real experts, I had begun to wonder whether wolves would amount to much in Washington. The habitat and prey availability just isn’t what it is in Idaho, western Montana and Northwest Wyoming.
The state represents the verge of woodland caribou and sea-run sockeye salmon country. Critters at the edge of their range don’t do as well as in their core. Washington is also the second most densely populated in the West with a vast megalopolis on one side and an equally vast, treeless, agland plateau on the other, neither of which work well for wolves.
But wolves have a way of surprising you. In the space of one week last summer, two new packs were confirmed in Washington, one just 97.9 road miles east of Fifth & James, and the latest GPS data shows that that footloose member of Northeast Oregon’s Imnaha clan, OR-7, is just a few hard days’ travel from California.
Or, heck, Washington.
Also unclear for Wecker: how in these money-tight times Washington will find the resources to manage the species and its baggage. WDFW has largely been paying for its wolf work so far through federal grants and vanity-plate sales, but is now trying to shake more money out of the Legislature.
If the history of wolves and lawsuit-happy organizations in the Northern Rockies is any indication, to scientifically justify controlling their numbers, you must be able to quantify how much game they’re chewing up and that will require funding herd surveys and studies.
And if history is another indication, wolves will eventually gnaw on sheep and cattle, and when they do it often enough, they will have to be shot and killed — 1,517 were taken out in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming between 1986 and the end of 2010 — and checks will have to be written to ranchers for the depredations.
As for a headcount, the latest minimum estimate for Washington is somewhere around 25 to 30 adults and yearlings — pup numbers won’t be out till next year — but some hunters feel there are more, far more, and they’ve been recording their observations.
“If we don’t accurately count them, we’ll be behind the curve,” said Wecker. “That’s what many are pointing at — they don’t trust us to walk the walk, to carry out the management plan.”
She understands that, but said that the commission feels the plan is a very important tool for the agency to have.
“Delisting is in everyone’s interest,” she said.
Hanging out there is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision about whether wolves in the western two thirds of the state are part of the recovered population in the Northern Rockies, which was taken off the Endangered Species Act list last spring, or their own distinct group that requires continued Federal protection.
Originally that call was to be made at the end of 2011, but it has since been pushed back to late winter 2012, according to USFWS spokeswoman Joan Jewett.
Wecker said that WDFW staffers who’ve talked with the Feds have gotten the impression that if their plan is sound, the government is more likely to give the state day-to-day control.
“We want that authority,” she said. “As long as they are listed, we have no authority. We’d like to see the Federal government trust us and hand over management. If there’s no plan, it’s hard to imagine them handing it over to us.”
THE GOAL IS ALSO TO GIVE WDFW what it needs to deal with wolf-ungulate and wolf-livestock conflicts.
“We want the agency to have management flexibility,” Wecker said.
The nut of the final plan is that the benchmark for state delisting — and a gateway to potential future hunts — is 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.
According to the scientists, 15 is the minimum needed to ensure recovery, but actually would mean as many as 23 packs and from 97 to 361 animals total.
No matter how many times the claim is repeated, neither WDFW nor USFWS are planning on reintroducing the native species, though translocation could be used to move them around inside the state to reach recovery goals — an expensive, time-consuming, litigious and divisive step.
But as they listened to public comment during their summer and fall meetings, commissioners began asking about potential revisions, so at their November confab WDFW staff came back with some tweaks that fell “within the bounds” of the recommended plan.
Rocky Beach, WDFW’s Wildlife Diversity Division manager, explained to me why they couldn’t just scrap the plan and take up calls from some hunters, cattle interests and rural counties to halve distribution numbers and lessen protections.
“Going any further than that would require a separate environmental impact statement,” he said, adding that would take months — three alone for public comment.
“Anything more major than that opens them up for lawsuits,” adds spokeswoman Madonna Luers.
As it stands, among the options prepared for the commission, one would change distribution numbers to initiate state delisting from the five-four-six formula to four-four-four-plus three anywhere in the state “and/or 18 breeding pairs (4/4/4/6) in any single year.”
Again, wolves will surprise you, but for hunters that represents an easier benchmark to meet in areas where it’s likely to take longer for the animals to spread — south of I-90 and west of I-82.
Enhanced lethal-take provisions for livestock operators grazing stock on public ground were also drawn up, as were more definitive resolutions to wolf-game conflicts.
WECKER’S HUSBAND HAD JUST KILLED AN ELK in the Willapa Hills when we spoke. She pointed out that all seven commissioners fish and five hunt (there are nine positions on the commission, but two are currently unfilled), and she insisted that WDFW is “still enthusiastic” about us and our tradition.
“We know (wolves) can impact prey species and hunting opportunities … and we care about maintaining hunting opportunities,” she told me.
She termed claims that the agency is turning its back on sportsmen these days “crazy,” and added, “The commission understands the impact of hunter conservation in support of the department. No question about it. It’s at the heart of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”
Still, Wecker said the commission has tried to be open minded and listened to both sides.
“I’ve read the plan, I’ve read the many, many emails we’ve received,” she said. “I think there’s no more information that will be new before the vote. It’s time to distill, mull over, consider the options to come to a personal decision about what is the right thing to do. There will be more conversation between the commissioners. Expect an hour, two-hour conversation amongst ourselves in public to sort through what we think. We’ll be thinking about it right up to the vote. I don’t think things are settled and clear for everyone.”
Hard to say what they will do, but one state staffer involved in the process hazarded a guess that if anything, they’d do minor tweaks that would help expedite delisting and response to livestock depredations.
Near the end of our conversation, Wecker said that the “take-home message” is that while how well wolves will do in Washington is unclear, WDFW has to do a good job managing the social tolerances.
“That’s a practical matter. Talk is cheap. We know we’ve got to perform on the ground where it matters,” she said.
Editor’s note: Previously this article stated that Washington was at the edge of Virginia whitetail deer range. However, a WDFW deer specialist tells me that the state’s whitetails are a “separate subspecies called the Northwest White-tailed deer which range from eastern Oregon north to B.C. southeast into NW Montana and north and north-central Idaho which kind of puts eastern Washington in the center or west center of the NW whitetails’ range.”