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Wolf management plan has many howling over state's efforts to control population

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By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald-Republic

Conservation NW's Jay Kehne: "You go to these meetings and because 40 guys show up in camo and cowboy hats, you think everybody's against wolves," he said. "Well, sometimes there's the more quiet contingent that maybe is a little intimidated by those sessions and don't show up or don't speak."

Wolf management plan has many howling over state's efforts to control population

This wolf is believed to be one of the Teanaway wolf pack, the state’s fourth verified resident pack. The photo was taken by remote camera network overseen by Western Transportation Institute, which is surveying animals for I-90 wildlife crossings

 

YAKIMA, Wash. -- With five resident packs verified in Washington -- including one in the Teanaway hills north of Cle Elum -- wolves have found their way to the middle of the state.

Finding any middle ground among those preparing for this inevitable arrival, though, has been a lot harder.

The process that led to the state's proposed wolf management plan was contentious to the end, and responses across the state to wolf repopulation remain divided geographically -- largely pro-wolves to the west, anti-wolves to the east -- and, to an even greater extent, emotionally.

The emotional polarity has been borne out in several developments over the last month.

On Aug. 3, Okanogan County commissioners approved a resolution petitioning state Department of Fish and Wildlife director Phil Anderson to remove gray wolves from the endangered list. The resolution asserts that wolves are not, in fact, a native species that decades ago was hunted and trapped out of existence, and calls on Anderson to reclassify them as "deleterious exotic wildlife."

That same day, a federal judge in Montana upheld the recent removal of Northern Rockies wolves from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Within a week, several environmental organizations filed an appeal in a San Francisco federal court in hopes of returning those protections.

Public meetings during Washington's wolf-management planning process have been fraught with emotion. That is expected to be the case Monday, when the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission meets in Ellensburg to hear staff input and public comment on the proposed plan, which it set for adoption in December after two more hearings.

"It's such an emotional issue that when somebody gets up to speak against wolves," said Jay Kehne, who raises sheep on a ranch near Omak in Okanogan County, "their emotions all come out."

Members of the Washington Cattlemen's Association have at every public opportunity recommended lower wolf numbers than those called for by the proposed plan -- 15 verified, successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years as the minimum standard for delisting.

Those 15 verified breeding pairs, according to the plan, could actually represent anywhere from 97 to 361 wolves, and over three consecutive years the number of resident wolves -- still under resident protection -- would be expected to grow.

To what number, wonders Jack Field, the association's executive vice president and a member of the 17-member citizen working group that helped devise the plan?

Field and five other members disagreed with the final plan and wrote a minority opinion arguing that it called for far too many wolves.

"Nowhere in (the plan) is there a top number," Field said. "What if we start at 361 and come out (of the three years) at 700? There's nothing in there that says we're going to go in there and reduce the number back to 300.

"If I was a hunter, I would be scared to death."

Kehne is a hunter, and he believes that kind of fear is largely unfounded. Kehne proffers an intriguing spectrum of viewpoints -- he's a livestock owner and avid hunter, but also represents Conservation Northwest, an organization that has been a staunch supporter of re-establishing a viable wolf population in Washington.

"You'd think all hunters must be against wolves, and we're not. All livestock owners must be against wolves, and we're not," Kehne said. "Wolves are back in our state and people are reacting to that. There's some fear and some misunderstanding."

When it was pointed out that Kehne's general support of the numbers called for by the wolf management plan puts him in the minority in Okanogan County, Kehne said he wasn't sure that's true.

"You go to these meetings and because 40 guys show up in camo and cowboy hats, you think everybody's against wolves," he said. "Well, sometimes there's the more quiet contingent that maybe is a little intimidated by those sessions and don't show up or don't speak."

One member of the working group whose word tended to carry a lot of weight during the meetings was Art Swannack, an Eastern Washington rancher.

As president of the Washington Sheep Producers Association, he might have been expected to rail against the idea of another predator in the midst, but he said that would have been self-defeating.

"I don't like the idea of having a whole bunch of wolves in Washington, but there's no way any science can say they're not going to be able to inbreed at those (lower suggested) numbers," Swannack said. "If the courts say that's not viable, it's just going to get tossed out.

"You have to get us down to state control, state delisting, in order for our producers to have a chance of surviving with wolves in the area. And if we object to the plan like the cattlemen did and the plan doesn't get approved or we totally lose influence on the plan, then where are we?"

The wildlife commission is expected to hear public comment at two more meetings, Oct. 6 and Nov. 3 in Olympia, before approving the final version of the plan in December.

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