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Wolf management debate comes to Kittitas County

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By Mike Johnston
Daily Record

"There's plenty of room for wolves. The issue is: Are humans going to let them come back to the landscape?" said Conservation Northwest's Jasmine Minbashian. And per Executive Director Mitch Friedman: "The wolf's return to the Cascades is an important milestone for restoring the wildlife heritage of these wild mountains. Wolves play an important role in maintaining a balance of predator and prey that has trickle down benefits for all sorts of wildlife from eagles to bears."

Wolf management debate comes to Kittitas County

A female from the Teanaway wolf pack recovers earlier this summer after being tranquilized and collared for monitoring. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

ELLENSBURG ­It was midnight at Mitch Truax's elk hunting camp in fall 2010 about 10 miles north of Ellensburg when he and his hunting buddy heard it.

It was the howl of what only could be a wolf in the midst of the camp in the Naneum Creek canyon.

"It was distinct, and there was no doubt about it," Truax said earlier this week.

Although documented attacks on humans by wolves are extremely rare, Truax said the howling gave him an "ominous, menacing feeling" despite being in a secured tent and armed.

"I asked my friend if he knew what that howling was. He asked what it was. I said, ‘It's wolves,'" said Truax, who is a KittitasValley timothy hay grower and a professional backcountry guide.

Wolves sometimes locate others in their pack by howling, said Truax, who grew up in rural northern Minnesota and says he's well acquainted with wolves.

The next morning they took digital photos of the large tracks left behind. It appeared to be two wolves.

Later in the day they met other hunters who said the day before they'd witnessed a pack of about six wolves that split up, going in different directions.

He showed the hunters the track photos, and they concluded if someone wasn't walking their Great Dane through Truax's elk camp, the big tracks had to be from a wolf.

"So they were howling to relocate themselves," Truax concluded.

The debate

After 10 years of professional outdoor guiding in the western states, and guiding throughout this state, Truax has come to believe there just isn't enough wide open wilderness in Washington to adequately support a growing number of gray wolves with a sufficient, natural food supply - the kind wolves need to be self-sustaining and not preying regularly on domestic livestock.

"This isn't Idaho or Montana or Wyoming," Truax said. "We just don't have the wilderness area they need."

Jasmine Minbashian disagrees about the lack of room for wolves.

She manages special projects and the wolf recovery program for the nonprofit, Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, a wildlife advocacy group.

"There's plenty of room for wolves. The issue is: Are humans going to let them come back to the landscape?" Minbashian said.

The statewide Conservation Northwest, which helped to document the existence of the Teanaway wolf pack in Upper Kittitas County earlier this year, supports the proposed statewide wolf recovery plan recommended by a majority of the 17-member Wolf Working Group.

The working group was appointed by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2007 to develop a plan for managing the gray wolf.

Wildlife biologists expected the species to migrate into Eastern Washington from Canada, Oregon and Idaho, and they have.

Conservation Northwest believes a sustainable number of wolves in Kittitas County, and statewide, will help the overall ecosystem and biodiversity in wild areas, said Mitch Friedman, executive director for the group. "The wolf's return to the Cascades is an important milestone for restoring the wildlife heritage of these wild mountains," Friedman said. "Wolves play an important role in maintaining a balance of predator and prey that has trickle down benefits for all sorts of wildlife from eagles to bears."

Bob Tuck of Selah agrees. He is a member of the Wolf Working Group, a longtime fish and wildlife biologist and a former member of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. He also hunts deer and elk.

He said those opposed to aspects of the recommended plan are using the worst-case scenario to project a huge number of wolves based on the maximum reproduction rate of 24 percent annually.

"The chances to get that maximum reproduction from 15 breeding pairs in the wild are slim to none," Tuck said. "It won't happen."

Changes

Tuck said as the wolf population in the state naturally rises there will be definite changes in wildlife and hunting: deer and elk behavior will be much more wary.

Tuck said the changes, including wolves taking deer and elk, won't be as severe as opponents of the plan predict.

"We have to remember what we are about in wildlife management, to support an overall healthy ecosystem," Tuck said about hunting. "The ecosystem isn't a vending machine where you put in your money and out pops a trophy elk."

Even if hunters are reluctant to support the removal of the wolf from the endangered species list, they understand a healthy ecosystem should include wolves, Tuck said, and not just maximize the number of deer and elk for hunters.

He said state cattle ranchers and some hunting groups have predicted a kind of wildlife Armageddon with wolf recovery, saying deer and elk herds will be decimated.

Tuck said that hasn't happened in western states where wolf packs have been allowed to grow and the species is now delisted.

Numbers, numbers

Jack Field, another member of the Wolf Working Group, has repeatedly called for biologists and wildlife experts to give the total number of wolves that would reflect a sustainable number for Washington and lead to taking the wolf off the endangered list.

Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said no one has proposed such a total number for the wolf plan.

"We're not talking about the recovery of the desert tortoise or something, this is an apex predator that can have a widespread and dramatic impact in rural Washington," Field said.

He's estimated that if a 24 percent annual reproduction rate occurs involving the required 15 breeding pairs, about 500 wolves could exist after the pairs are confirmed, after a three-year waiting period and after a yearlong process to delist.

"There's no real targets, no management caps on wolf numbers, no specific actions required to control the wolf numbers across the state," Field said. "That's not management, that's inviting a huge debacle to occur."

Living plan

"It's not always about numbers in wildlife management," Tuck said. "You often can't have specific numbers. Most of those on the wolf working group rejected requiring some total number or cap."

Tuck said the plan is a "living document" and on-the-ground management changes can be implemented to respond to wildlife and livestock conflicts as they are discovered.

That doesn't satisfy Mitch Truax.

Allowing a recovering wolf population in this state to become too large will create increasing conflicts with rural residents, cattle ranchers and their livestock, and with existing herds of deer and elk, he said.

Truax said more and more people are making their homes, second homes or recreational cabins farther and farther out in rural, outdoor areas. They often bring livestock and other animals with them: horses, small herds of cattle, chickens and pet dogs.

These areas are territory or potential territory for wolves who can range for hundreds of miles for prey or mates, he said.

"It's a huge concern in my mind," Truax said.

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