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Commission questions Wash. areas for wolf recovery

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By Shannon Dininny
Associated Press

"Wolves are about understanding the facts and the real data and not letting fear overshadow your judgment," said Jay Kehne, who lives in Omak and represents Conservation Northwest, urging the commission to support the plan. The number of wolves required for delisting under the plan is based on science, he said.

ELLENSBURG, Wash. The members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission got an earful about gray wolves Monday, and the refrain was overwhelmingly the same: A proposed plan for managing wolves in Washington state calls for too many of the predators.

About 75 people, many of them sheep and cattle ranchers in Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats, turned out for the latest in a series of public meetings to determine how to recover wolves in their historic territory and ultimately delist them from endangered species protections while reducing and managing wolf-livestock conflicts.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife released a proposed management plan, five years in the making, earlier this summer. However, a 17-member citizen advisory group was unable to agree on recommendations for the plan despite months of discussion.

In particular, representatives of hunting and ranching groups opposed the number of wolves called for in the plan: 15 successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years to remove endangered species protections.

Ranchers and hunters echoed those concerns Monday.

Don Jackson, a cattle rancher in the little town of Starbuck at the edge of the Blue Mountains, said he has lost five calves to predators since last fall on grazing land near Walla Walla.

Wolves in that area are believed to be crossing back and forth between Washington and Oregon.

"I've lived there for 72 years. In that time that country has never been wolf habitat," he said. "All at once, I find out I've got wolves in the middle of my cattle. I'm not encroaching on the wolf habitat. He's encroaching on me, and he's doing a pretty good job of it."

Gray wolves were eliminated as a breeding species in Washington by the 1930s. They have never been reintroduced to Washington but numerous sightings over the years suggested that the animals had crossed into Washington from neighboring states and British Columbia.

Gray wolves are listed as an endangered species statewide under Washington law, and in the western two-thirds of the state under federal law. There currently are five confirmed resident wolf packs, all in Eastern Washington.

Okanogan County commissioners have submitted a request for gray wolves to be delisted there, and Douglas, Lincoln, Ferry and Stevens counties in northeast Washington have offered support. Fifteen breeding pairs is simply too many, Okanogan County Commissioner Jim Detro said.

"You go to Alaska, you go to B.C., the old-timers will say, 'If you see one wolf, 20 have seen you," he said.

Gary Donna, the commission vice chair from Kettle Falls, also questioned how Washington can have similar objectives for successful recovery of wolves as Idaho and Montana when Washington has a much higher population and "a third of the habitat."

"I still wonder how we're going to be successful against those odds," he said.

Conservation groups have argued against reducing the number of wolves required for delisting. One woman at the meeting wore a T-shirt that read, "Little Red Riding Hood Lied," but only a handful of people spoke up in support of the plan.

Jay Kehne, who lives in Omak and represents Conservation Northwest, urged the commission to support the plan. The number of wolves required for delisting under the plan is based on science," he said.

"Wolves are about understanding the facts and the real data and not letting fear overshadow your judgment," he said.

A member of the citizen advisory group, Bob Tuck of Eco-Northwest, also urged the commission to adopt the plan.

"Wolves are just becoming a factor in our landscape. Precisely because of that, we can't let wolf management drift without a rudder, and that rudder is a plan," he said. "Keep in mind it's just the beginning."

Under the plan, five breeding pairs would be required in Eastern Washington, four in the North Cascades and six in the South Cascades or Northwest Coast.

The South Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula have some of the most contiguous habitat in the state for wolf recovery, and more effort should be made to address efforts there as a separate region, commented commission member David Jennings of Olympia.

"That to me seems to be a real missed opportunity, compared to having it in the northeast corner of the state, where we're going to have a lot of wolf conflicts," he said.

Two of the state's confirmed wolf packs reside in north-central Washington's Methow Valley and the Teanaway Valley of Kittitas County.

The latter raises concerns for Sam Kayser, whose cattle graze on 24,000 acres of private timber land in the Teanaway. Kayser fears losing calves to predatory wolves, but he's also concerned that higher stress on his cattle will hinder breeding and reduce their weight - and his paycheck - at sale.

The other three wolf packs reside in the northeast corner of the state, where Dave Dashiell's 1,000 ewes graze in the summer months in northeast Washington. He plans to double or triple the size of his flock, but he said the growing presence of gray wolves there raises questions about his ability to do so.

"To my knowledge - knock on wood - I haven't lost any to wolves yet," he said as commissioners met. "We already have coyotes, bears, cougars, ravens. I don't need the apex predator on top of that."

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