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There's more to the wolf story

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By Jay Kehne
Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle

Conservation Northwest's Jay Kehne discusses wolves in Washington, addressing some of the myths that prevent people from understanding and accepting wolves.

Many people in the Okanogan are talking about wolves since they returned to our county a couple years ago. If you believe everything that is being said about wolves at public meetings, coffee shops and on the internet, you may not be getting  the whole story. You may have been fed a line. 

Such is the case of the recent resolution by the Okanogan County Commissioners asking the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) to remove protections for the wolf. Its allegations are mostly unfounded, it will not succeed, and it will be remembered largely as a waste of energy and time.  I predict that the WDFW will send Okanogan County a letter explaining the well established biological and legal basis for protecting wolves as an endangered species in Washington. Then we will be right back where we started, needing to separate facts from myths about wolves so we can move forward and learn how to live with them. Take into consideration that the results of a recent poll shows a whopping 70% of Washington residents support wolf recovery in our state. 

As a friend, acquaintance and neighbor to many people in Okanogan County, I want to share  information about wolves and help stop the unproductive and unfounded fear-based rumors, untruths and wild stories that are going around.  Hear me out; I'd like to take them on one by one:

Wolves will infect us all with Echinococcus tape worm!  This tape worm is found in canines around the world, including dogs, coyotes, wolves and fox. The eggs of the tapeworm can spread to wild and domestic ungulates, like deer and sheep when infected canid feces are ingested.  Ungulates also can give the tapeworm to canines when an infected ungulate is eaten.  But people will not get tapeworms from eating infected deer, elk, or sheep. The Tapeworm can only be transmitted to humans that ingest infected canid feces.  The risk of infection to humans remains infinitesimally small and certainly won't change significantly because a few wolves are spread out over millions of acres of woods.   

Gray wolves are not native to Washington!  It is scientifically documented that wolves first migrated into Washington from the southern Great Plains about 10,000 years ago, and wolves were routinely observed and trapped by pioneers.   With territories of over 350 square miles, and excellent dispersal capability, wolves have been wandering back and forth across the Canadian border for eons.  Gray wolves living in Canada and Washington, were and are, all the same species.  When wolves disappeared from Washington in the 1930's due to trapping, poisoning and hunting, the same gray wolf species still existed in Canada.  And now these wolves have wandered back into Okanogan County.  Same wolves, same species.  In fact, recent research involving DNA from hundreds of wolves from Canada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming found there is no genetic difference between them. 

Supposedly there are sworn affidavits that people saw wolves being released in Okanogan County!  I'm sure somebody saw something, but to believe these were wolves you'd have to ignore a whole lot of things.  Even highly trained biologists and trappers need more than a quick sighting to verify a wolf.  To verify a wolf you need pictures, photos of tracks, or DNA evidence to be sure what you "saw" wasn't a wolf-dog hybrid, coyote, or some other big dog. People dump unwanted pets every week in our area. Think about it, who would have the skills, motives or funds to track wolves, (most likely in Canada) trap them, dart them, transport them unnoticed across the border, and release them in our county.  Not to mention the alleged sighting took place in 2005 and the signed affidavit didn't appear until 2011? 

We will have monster 200 lb wolves!  The Idaho Department of Fish and Game would beg to differ.  Of the 188 wolves taken in the 2009 Idaho wolf hunt, the record weight was 127 lbs and the average was 95 lbs.  The myth of monster wolves comes from Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs children's stories, not from reality.  And the pictures of giant wolves you see on the internet... well, even Photoshop or a wide-angle camera lens can make the fish I catch look big!

But what about all the livestock loss because of wolves! Fortunately, there is good data on livestock predation. With 1500 wolves in the Rockies and 3,000 in Minnesota, only 1% of cattle losses were due to predators. Of that 1% percent, coyotes accounted for 53%, domestic dogs 10% and wolves 4% of all predator losses. Neighbors’ dogs kill three times as much  livestock as wolves!   After the poaching of the Lookout Pack in the Methow, we only have 2 confirmed adult wolves in Okanogan County and a few scattered sightings of lone wolves. Even if Okanogan County's wolf population grows to what experts expect (about 4-6 packs or 40-60 wolves) livestock losses will be extremely low.  Let's get proactive now so we can have plans in place to avoid wolf and livestock conflicts and funds to fully compensate ranchers if conflicts do occur.

Wolves will multiply to unmanageable numbers and overrun the county!  Predator populations are self-regulating.  Their numbers don't grow beyond the natural prey base or the territorial space they need to occupy. Okanogan County only has enough physical space (territory) for a limited number of wolves, and they will kill other wolves and  predators to defend their territory. 

But what about us -- wolves are known to attack and kill humans!  This is where the facts can really help set aside irrational and unfounded fears. There is only one confirmed human life lost due to wolves in all of North America.  For perspective, compare that to 34 fatal dog attacks in the USA in 2010 alone, and that 1,000 people are treated every day in the States for bites, maulings and attacks by dogs. Fear of wolves is not something to lose sleep over.

Wolves will decimate elk and deer herds! To really look at all the facts, research, and hunting statistics with an unbiased view, would take another whole article which I would be glad to write.  To get you thinking, 23 of Idaho's 29 game management zones have elk numbers within or above management targets.  With 150,000 elk, Montana is 14 percent over the state management objective, and Wyoming with 120,000 elk is 50% above objective. As an avid elk & deer hunter, I realize wolves change herd behavior. In order to remain successful, hunters will have to adapt, which in turn will make them better hunters.   

To learn more about wolves, rancher compensation, wolf ungulate interactions and the basis for wolf recovery in Washington State go to: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/mgmt_plan.html and take a look at the Washington Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. You will be surprised in its thoroughness, fairness and balanced approach to the return of wolves in our state.

Jay Kehne is an avid hunter, backpacker, skier, wildlife advocate, and livestock owner, who makes his home with his family along the Okanogan River.  He has degrees in Wildlife Biology and Soil Science from WSU.

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