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Can wolves and Washingtonians coexist?

— filed under:
By John Stang
Crosscut

"Wolves aren't angels or devils," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, at a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bills. "They can respond to management techniques."

Can wolves and Washingtonians coexist?

Photo courtesy of Tracy Brooks (USFWS/Flickr).

If "A Modest Proposal" had been written about Washington state's wolf problem, it might have gone something like Rep. Joel Kretz's recent bill on the issue.

"The Legislature finds that the rich habitat created by the land stewardship of Washington's private landowners has created circumstances that allow the state to enjoy an expanding gray wolf population," Kretz wrote. "Unfortunately, however, this bounty has been geographically limited to areas in eastern Washington and the entire citizenship of the state has not been fully able to enjoy the reestablishment of this majestic species."

Rep. Kretz, R-Wauconda, introduced the semi-tongue-in-cheek bill a few weeks ago, aiming to transfer some of northeastern booming Washington's wolf population to the Olympic Peninsula. Or, for that matter, to any Puget Sound Island of 50 square miles or more — the minimum roaming area for a single gray wolf.

Though Washington's master plan has been to scatter reinstated wolf packs somewhat evenly around the state, most have, in reality, clumped in Washington's northeast corner. That same corner is home to more than a few livestock owners who have seen a not-incidental spate of wolf attacks on their livestock. Kretz's bill is just one of a handful introduced in the last few weeks that takes a stab at  determining just how wolves and humans can best co-exist.

So far, Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, and Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, have proposed a handful of solutions, including:

  • Creating a $50,000 fund to compensate ranchers and farmers for wolf-destroyed livestock. Money would be raised by special wolf license plates costing $40 initially and $30 for renewal. The bill would declare gray wolves "big game," which means anyone caught illegally shooting wolves would be strapped with a mandatory state fine of $4,000 on top of the normal criminal penalty of up to $5,000 and up to one year in jail. 
  • Allowing someone to shoot a wolf that is attacking livestock at that moment.
  • Giving county governments the authority to order the killing of a wolf if at least two attacks on livestock have occurred, a pattern of predation becomes apparent or the state is not dealing with the situation.

"Wolves aren't angels or devils," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, at a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bills. "They can respond to management techniques."

Gray wolves are listed as federally endangered in the western two-thirds of the state, and are on Washington's endangered species list for the entire state. In 2012, there were an estimated 51 to 101 wolves living in Washington, according to Dave Ware, the game division manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fifteen of those have been tagged with electronic tracking collars and are members of six of the state's eight confirmed packs. Three additional packs are suspected, but not confirmed.

The state's goal is to build up a population that includes 15 breeding pairs of wolves — at least one pair per pack — with a minimum of four breeding pairs in each third of the state. So far though, reality has been a little different. Six of the eight confirmed packs are in northeastern Washington, with another in the Teanaway area near Snoqualmie Pass and the eighth further north in the Cascade Mountains. 

Not surprisingly, those northeastern wolves are hungry. During 2012, Washington's wolves killed nine cows and sheep and wounded 15 more. One Stevens County ranch bore the brunt of the impact, losing six cows and seeing 10 more injured. The owner — for an undisclosed reason — decided not to seek state compensation for the lost value of the livestock, which was roughly $100,000. In a very controversial move, the state killed seven wolves in that area because of the string of attacks. 

"Having this type of predator being reintroduced is devastating to our ranchers," Ferry County Commissioner Brad Miller explained at the bills' hearing.

County commissioners from Stevens, Okanogan, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties showed up in support of the bills. As did seven small ranchers from around the state. But commissioners also pointed to the Stevens County rancher who lost $100,000 worth of livestock last year, arguing that $50,000 is too small for a state compensation fund. 

Popular opinion on the subject is split. One survey Ware cited found that 75 percent of Washingtonians support wolves returning to Washington, but that that percentage drops significantly in rural areas. Further, 66 percent of Washingtonians supported the right of farmers and ranchers to shoot wolves that kill livestock.

Roger Chapanis of Sammammish is one of the exceptions. ""On the surface, it sounds like good intentions," he said. "At night, I fear it will lead to killing anything that moves."

There are several non-lethal ways ranchers can stave off wolves, which Ware outlined at the meeting: Scattering wolf scat and urine around a ranch to fool a wolf pack into thinking another pack is already there; using a line with red and orange flags hanging from it, which for some reason wolves won't cross; and hiring range riders to patrol a ranch or group of ranches when a tracking collar alerts the state that a pack is in the area.

At least some farmers at the hearing seemed open to these methods, including Tyler Cox, a small rancher from Walla Walla. "We don't want to kill wolves. We want to sell calves," he said. 

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