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Should it be easier to shoot Washington state's endangered gray wolves?

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By John Stang
Crosscut

On a 25-to-23 vote, the Senate passed SB 5187 to allow the owner of livestock or a domestic animal to kill a gray wolf attacking or posing an imminent threat to those animals on private and public lands without regard to the wolf's endangered status and without needing any permit.

To Sen. John Smith, this is personal.

The Republican has a small ranch near Colville in northeastern Washington. A wolf attacking his 10-year-old son's dog, his cattle or even his family is a real threat.

On Friday, he told the other Washington senators to imagine a wolf attacking his son's dog, ripping it to shreds, eating it alive as its cries reach the ears of his boy, whose family cannot legally shoot the predator.

"Is it OK to watch one animal torture another animal for hours on end? ... That's not OK by me," Smith said.

On a 25-to-23 vote, the Senate passed Smith's bill to allow the owner of livestock or a domestic animal to kill a gray wolf attacking or posing an imminent threat to those animals on private and public lands without regard to the wolf's endangered status and without needing any permit. Votes closely followed party lines favoring the GOP, although a few Democrats and Republicans crossed the aisle.

The bill, SB 5187, now goes to the Democratic-controlled House. Some supporters, including the Cattlemen's Association in Stevens County where Smith lives, have expressed pessimism about winning House approval.

Currently, a livestock owner can only kill an attacking wolf if he or she obtains a permit first from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Smith said, "This isn't a game ... This is my life. It's other people's lives. It's our livelihoods." To him, the opponents are people outside of northeastern Washington and its wild areas who do not understand the facts of life there.

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. 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 farther north in the Cascades mountain range. 

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. In a controversial move, the state killed seven of nine wolves in that area because of the string of attacks.

Friday's debate bounced back and forth between the argument that people should not shoot an endangered species on public land and the argument that livestock are private property with owners having a constitutional right to protect it. 

Most Democratic senators opposed the bill, unsuccessfully trying to get the Republican-oriented majority to narrow its focus. Rejected amendments included allowing the shooting for protection without permits on private lands but not on public lands; getting a state permit to shoot a wolf after it is confirmed as a livestock or domestic animal killer; and taking the issue to a public referendum. Several Democrats said they would support Smith's bill if one or more of the amendments were added.

Democrats noted that polls show that the majority of Washingtonians want wolves to safely expand in the state, and the legislators argued that the public should vote on this matter. Republicans countered that the legislators were elected to make these decisions. Ironically, both sides reversed themselves from their stances on raising taxes — an issue where Democrats argue the legislator-judgment position, and Republicans argue that public polls should be honored.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced most of the rejected amendments. He is skeptical about the alleged number of livestock killed by wolves, believing it has been inflated. His staff collected information from the state, Washington State University and wolf experts regarding 16 wolf-attack incidents. Outside experts could confirm wolves were the attackers in only three of the 16 incidents tallied by the state Fish and Wildlife Department. The other incidents could not be definitively identified as wolf attacks, he said.

One incident had a necropsy report finding that a toothless wolf had gummed a cow to death. Several wolves were shot in the cow's area, and all had their teeth, Ranker said. An outside expert looked at another necropsy report and concluded the cow was either killed by a gnawing wolf or by getting entangled in barbed wire.

"Let's make sure what (wolf kill) decisions being made are factual," Ranker said.

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