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Killing wolves is tragic, but their return has been a success

By Mitch Friedman
The Seattle Times

10/30/16 Op-Ed in the Seattle Times by Mitch Friedman. Tamping down the human hostility toward wolves is the first priority for those who have advocated for their return to Washington lands.

Killing wolves is tragic, but their return has been a success

Driving the cattle upward, Range Rider Bill Johnson looks for signs of wolves in the Teanaway Valley of Cle Elum in 2015. Photo: Sy Bean/The Seattle Times

SOME conflict between wolves and cows, and the occasional removal of wolves as a last resort, is an expected occurrence as the wild canines continue to recover in our state.

In the wilds of northeast Washington near the Kettle Crest, four wolves just got a reprieve.

On Oct. 19, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it was suspending operations to cull the Profanity Peak Pack. The pack had been persistently depredating on livestock through the summer, but now cows are mostly out of the backcountry for the season.

At least one adult female wolf and three juveniles remain. While the Kettle Range’s abundant deer, moose and other natural prey is plentiful enough to sustain them, the future of this small and young pack is uncertain. Fortunately, research shows that reduced from 12 members to four, their propensity to depredate on cattle is lower.

I wish I could say this will be our last wolf fire-drill. But as inspiring and ecologically beneficial as the return of wolves to their historic range is, it carries some amount of inevitable conflict. The periodic removal of wolves that persistently attack livestock is heart-wrenching, but it’s part of a balancing act between people, livestock and predators sharing the same space. And it does not threaten the overall recovery of wolves.

Some argue that the answer is to ban livestock from public land. But federal grazing policy has a century of history, and Congress shows no sign of making sweeping changes. Moreover, the need for that balancing act remains since wolves also attack livestock on private land. So while improvements can be made, there’s no instant answer to wolf-livestock conflict.

The big picture gives us much to be both thankful and hopeful for: The comeback of Canis lupus to Washington has so far been a resounding success. In 2008, Conservation Northwest discovered the first wolf pups born in our state in nearly a century. Eight years later, at the end of 2015, Washington had a minimum of 90 wolves in at least 19 packs, with population growth steady at around 30 percent. While that population has yet to come west of the Cascades and is hampered by tragic incidents of poaching, we’re hopeful that heartening trajectory will continue until a natural plateau is reached.

This type of sustained wolf recovery, which many of us dearly want, depends upon acceptance in rural communities where wolves are now part of the landscape and living experience. Since wolves reproduce prolifically and thrive in diverse habitats, their major challenge is human hostility. Such hostility, expressed through politics and poaching, impacts wolves far more than the occasional state removal to resolve livestock conflicts. Alleviating hostility is the first priority for wolf advocates.

Therefore, the most positive sign in Washington’s wolf world is that, in 2016, more than 50 ranchers entered into cooperative agreements with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. These compacts provide ranchers with state support for wolf deterrents, including range riders — trained herd supervisors who can identify and work to prevent potential conflicts — as well as compensation for animals lost to depredation. Ranchers agree to remove potential wolf attractants, including deceased or injured livestock and to thoroughly employ at least one other conflict avoidance measure, such as range riders or guard dogs.

We at Conservation Northwest directly assist half a dozen large ranches with these methods. Such efforts may not grab national headlines, but they quietly make possible our goal of long-term recovery and public acceptance of wolves alongside thriving rural communities.

Wide use of coexistence tools in combination with a last-resort, lethal-removal protocol (agreed to by the state’s Wolf Advisory Group consisting of various wildlife stakeholders) is helping build that essential tolerance.

I’ve spent my entire adult life promoting wildlife, including the recovery of wolves in our state. Seeing and especially sanctioning the killing of wolves is painful for me and my peers. Our support for lethal removal under Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ’s protocol comes only after the most careful deliberation — and also with a commitment to learn from events and improve policies to minimize conflict.

Coexistence with healthy wolf populations is achievable in Washington. But even with good faith and effort, periodic conflict is inevitable. As a society, we must find ways to work through conflict with civil discourse and sound policy that reflect both the values of Washingtonians and the needs of wildlife. That’s how we can keep the Northwest wild.

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