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Wolf debate reaches Senate panel

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By Jim Camden
Spokesman Review

Wildlife advocates warned that proposals to loosen the restrictions for shooting predators go too far and could encourage “an open season” on wolves.

OLYMPIA – Farmers, ranchers and county officials from Eastern Washington said a plan to manage wolves as they are re-established in the state has good ideas but doesn’t go far enough to cover their potential losses or protect their property.

But wildlife advocates warned that proposals to loosen the restrictions for shooting predators go too far and could encourage “an open season” on wolves.

Wolves are making a remarkable comeback in Washington, Dave Ware of the state Fish and Wildlife Department told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. A year ago, there were five confirmed wolf packs in the state; now there are eight confirmed packs and three more suspected packs.

“We’re anticipating a fairly rapid growth rate,” Ware said.

But wolves will remain protected under Washington’s endangered species law until there are at least 15 packs for three years, with at least some packs in each of the state’s three recovery regions. Right now, almost all the wolf packs are in the Eastern Washington recovery region.

In the meantime, the department has developed a management plan with farmers, ranchers, wildlife experts and conservationists to minimize damage caused by wolves to livestock and domestic animals. It’s a combination of nonlethal techniques to keep wolves away and capture and relocate them, and includes killing them under certain circumstances.

The Legislature is considering setting aside money from its general fund to pay for some of those losses, rather than just taking the money out of fees charged for hunting and fishing licenses or the sale of special license plates. That’s fair, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said, because the whole state needs to take responsibility for those costs.

Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, said the state should be ready to list wolves as a big game species, which would allow for hunting when they reach a certain level. It should also allow residents to kill a wolf that’s attacking livestock, domestic animals or pets without first seeking state approval, and allow county officials to declare a local emergency and empower the sheriff to reduce a local wolf population.

Smith said he lives in the middle of the territory covered by three of the packs. He described himself as an animal lover but said that extends beyond wolves to his livestock, dog and horses.

“Our founders gave us the right to protect our property with the Second Amendment,” Smith said.

Roger Chapanis, of Sammamish, said he worried some of Smith’s proposals would lead some people to believe they had “the right to shoot anything, anywhere.”

But representatives of the Farm Bureau, Cattleman’s Association and northeast county officials backed the bills. Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart said local officials could best weigh the effects wolves were having on local economies that rely on ranching. “I’m responsible enough to make sound decisions,” McCart said.

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