Wolf Fan Rues Legal, Regulated Tribal Harvest In Washington

George Wuerthner will be no stranger to lonely howls in the wilderness, and that’s pretty much what he’s issued over legal, regulated tribal wolf harvest in the wolfiest part of Washington.


The Western predator ecologist reports that members of two tribes have “slaughtered” from 52 to “perhaps as many as 57” of the animals over the last decade, “the single largest source of wolf mortality” in the state and even greater than WDFW’s lethal removal of 36 to try and head off chronic livestock depredations over the same period and which have sparked Carlton Complex-like firestorms in comparison.

He argues the large tribal take is both a surprise for wolf fans and environmental groups, and isn’t.

“Even though tribal hunting is a significant source of wolf mortality and a major impediment to wolf growth in the state, I have not received nor been able to find with Google searches a single article, alert, or notification from any conservation groups, including those whose primary mission is wolf restoration and recovery, expressing any concern about the slaughter of Washington wolves by tribal members,” Wuerthner wrote on the pro-wolf The Wildlife News yesterday.

He also states that even after newspapers were contacted by a pro-predator organization, they didn’t report about it. Besides the lack of scrutiny, his worry centers around ecological implications, the hunting success and health of unhunted packs, and behavioral changes of hunted wolves. He was a recent coauthor of a paper calling for “rewilding” the West with the creation of 11 large reserves on federal lands and restocked with wolves and beavers.

And Wuerthner found it ironic that while five environmental groups recently sued WDFW and its commission over not implementing binding wolf-livestock conflict rules – a lawsuit that may (or may not) have been set up by a very-predator-friendly commissioner’s increasingly curious vote against implementing the new rules – “it appears the on-going slaughter of far more wolves by tribal people is not worthy of even mention or condemnation in their newsletters, LTE, or other media.”

The quintet included Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds and Kettle Range Conservation Group

It’s quite the Gordian knot for members of Wuerthner’s community; one apparently only spoke to him for his article on the condition they not even be identified by sex.

By way of explanation, he wrote, “I interviewed several wolf advocates for this article who refused to be quoted or identified for fear of being called out by WOKE advocates as racist. ‘No one,’ according to one individual I spoke with, ‘wants to condemn Indians for anything. They are now like the sacred cows of the ranching industry – immune from any discussion or criticism.'”

Their easiest solution would be a federal relisting in the Northern Rockies. Even as it would appear the Biden Administration is opposed, yet another wolf lawsuit has been launched to force the issue after the feds missed a deadline to review heavy state wolf hunting measures passed by conservative Idaho and Montana legislatures. Wuerthner seemingly tries to open up a second front with his article.

Legal tribal wolf hunting is nothing new to this reporter. Following 2011’s Congressional delisting of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, I broke the news back in its dawn in Washington in late 2012 when the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation opened a season on their reservation, reported the first take in 2013 by a Spokane Tribe of Indians hunter, and further expansions by the Covilles in 2019.

My point has always been that if wolves can be sustainably hunted in Washington by the tribes, they can also be by state hunters, perhaps in more limited numbers like a special permit hunt after WDFW recovery goals are met and the species’ status is changed to allow it.

While the Colvilles have a spiritual connections to the animals — the name of their first pack, the Nc’icns (pronounced nn-seetsin) means “wolf” in Okanogan — the tribe rates the availability of deer, elk and moose for their members highly as well.

The Colvilles hunt and trap wolves both on their reservation – the “South Half” – in Northcentral Washington and on federal and state lands, as well as private property by permission, just to the north, in the “North Half,” while the Spokanes hunt and trap wolves on their reservation northwest of Spokane, with an annual quota of 10.

The tribes can hold a season because those lands are inside that part of the Northwest where wolves are federally delisted.

Also, they’re sovereign nations with rights reserved by treaties signed with the federal government in exchange for other lands, a distinction often lost in arguments over fish and wildlife management.

“They get to manage wolves on their reservation any way they choose,” Dave Ware, WDFW’s Game Division manager at the time, bluntly told me in 2012, when the Colvilles first opened a wolf hunt.

It made for quite the conundrum for wolf fans at the time – Conservation Northwest’s Mitch Friedman wondered if the tribe just couldn’t translocate wolves west instead of shoot them, but ultimately he went on to work closely with the Colvilles on a recent major property acquisition.

And apparently it still is for some.

But that might be changing.

At a recent meeting, one Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission member publicly expressed concern over tribal wolf hunting. The tribes DO NOT like negative attention focused on them, which Wuerthner’s article might also be about in part.

Even as WDFW’s commission has zero authority to regulate on-reservation tribal fish and wildlife management and is a comanager in certain other areas like the North Half, Wuerthner argues a judge has ruled the state can do so “in the interest of conservation, provided the regulation meets appropriate standards and does not discriminate against the Indians … The ‘appropriate standards’ requirement means that the State must demonstrate that its regulation is a reasonable and necessary conservation measure and that its application to the Indians is a necessary conservation measure.” 

Wolves are state-listed across Washington

Asked directly this morning if WDFW has any conservation concerns about tribal wolf harvest in Washington, agency spokeswoman Staci Lehman in Spokane stated:

“We look at overall mortality and the effect on the population trend for wolves. If mortality as a percentage of the overall population remains generally low, as it has been, then no. If mortality represented a higher percentage of the population, there is potential we may be concerned about it in the future,” she said.

That would strongly indicate that last year’s harvest of 22 wolves by tribal hunters didn’t phase WDFW.

As it stands, this reporter can account for 53 confirmed tribal wolf kills – one so far this year, in May; the aforementioned 22 in 2021; eight in 2020; six in both 2019 and 2018; three each in 2017, 2016 and 2015; and the one in 2013.

As for Wuerthner’s 57 figure, Lehman stated that typically the tribes don’t send a full accounting of harvest till the end of the year for the joint annual wolf report and speculated he may be privy to information that isn’t yet known by the state.

Meanwhile, Wuerthner paraphrased Eugene, Oregon-based Predator Defense executive director Brooks Fahy as saying “the tribal slaughter is a significant setback for the wolf recovery in the state,” which Wuerthner categorized as “still in the early stages.”

The actual numbers suggest a different story.

Washington’s minimum wolf count has increased from 51 in nine packs in 2012 – the year of the first hunt – to 206 in 33 packs at the end of 2021, and since 2008, when WDFW first began performing annual tally, “the state’s wolf population has grown by an average of 25 percent per year,” the agency reports.

What the 2022 count comes in as remains to be seen, but across the board the numbers undoubtedly would be higher still if wolves weren’t so naturally footloose, with no small number of Washington animals dispersing to British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon over the years.

And Washington’s annual 25 percent increase – even in the face of tribal hunting, lethal removals, roadkills, caught-in-the-act shootings, poaching, death due to natural causes, and cougars eating at least a couple – trumps the 20 percent seen in Northwest Montana and Southeast British Columbia between 1982 and 1995 as wolves recolonized the area. It’s also greater than the 17 percent seen between wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone in 1995 and 2003, when the population peaked.

I can certainly relate to sensitivities around tribal fish and wildlife management in the state – boy, can I ever. But Wuerthner’s lonesome, anguished howl is gonna die out in some canyon without changing a thing for those he represents. Grand scheme, was it good for wildlife, wolves and the management thereof by those with the authority to do so?