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Wolf panel to host discussion Tuesday at YVCC

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By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald

“Some of the proven tools (in preventing predation) are still a good human presence — range-riding on a regular, almost daily basis seems to make a difference,” Kehne said.

One of the two wolf biologists hired six months ago by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to oversee and hone the state’s management of its newest alpha predator knew only too well the emotional malestrom he was entering.

He’d been through this before in Wyoming, first with grizzly bears and then with wolves — and the public’s zealous response to dealing with the latter, recalls Becker, made the former all but forgotten.

“In 2001, when we wrote the grizzly bear management plan, in these small towns in Wyoming they’d have 300 people showing up at these public meetings. We’d have people with spit flying out of their mouths and cusswords and everything else,” recalled Becker, who’s based in Wenatchee. “The following year we started the wolf plan, and we hardly ever heard anything about grizzly bears again.”

Becker isn’t quite sure what to expect from audience members when he and other state wolf experts participate in a panel discussion as part of tonight’s screening of the BBC film “Land of the Lost Wolves,” at Kendall Auditorium on the Yakima Valley Community College campus.

But he does believe Washington has a pretty good handle on dealing with the state’s incoming population of wolves moving in from neighboring states to the east and south — in part because of the lessons learned elsewhere in the federal Northern Rockies wolf recovery plan.

“I think Washington’s ahead of the game, to be honest. They started their wolf plan before there were any confirmed packs in the state,” said Becker, 38, who will join state wildlife commissioner Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest expedition team leader Jasmine Minbashian and others in tonight’s program.

Becker’s primary focus these days is keeping tabs on the Teanaway Pack in the wooded hills of northern Kittitas County and the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley — both of which are featured in the BBC film being shown tonight. The rest of Eastern Washington’s packs are the primary responsibility of Paul Frame, WDFW’s Spokane-based wolf biologist.

So far, the Teanaway Pack has not been particularly problematic for either Becker or the rural residents of the Teanaway. Becker routinely follows up on sightings of the pack, which include two by a horseman in the area who has seen multiple pack members on two different occasions — once while he was riding alone and once while he was accompanied by his wife.

In each case, the wolves — once a group of four adults, once three — approached, observed the humans and ran off. And that, Becker said, is typical wolf behavior.

“More often than not,” Becker said, “if wolves know you’re around they’re going to tuck tail and get out of there.”

On another occasion prior to Becker’s hiring, a Teanaway hunter and his son were approached by several wolves who watched them for several minutes before leaving.

“I think they’ll learn in a hurry to not to that once more people start shooting at them,” Becker said — half-jokingly, since it’s illegal to shoot wolves except in cases of self-defense or when a wolf is in the act of attacking livestock. “They’re just like any other animal; if they see something, they might be a little curious. And it’s possible they might have had pups around and wanted to make sure the people didn’t get too close to them.”

Kehne, who when he’s not doing his duties as a state wildlife commissioner represents Conservation Northwest in Okanogan County, says a regular human presence is an effective deterrent to wolf predation on livestock.

A Colville area rancher, Kehne said, employed a range rider who received four daily GPS-coordinate updates on wolf locations from state wildlife biologists. Knowing where the wolves were, in relation to the livestock, enabled the range rider to ward off any possible predation.

“Some of the proven tools (in preventing predation) are still a good human presence — range-riding on a regular, almost daily basis seems to make a difference,” Kehne said. The rancher employeeing this particular range rider, he added, “didn’t lose any animals, and the weight on his animals was very good (at the end of the grazing season).

“The way he put it, the year before when he didn’t have range riders the wolves were running the ranch. This year, the humans were running the ranch.”

Kehne said, though, there is no simple answer to dealing with a prolific and wide-ranging predator. Early last month he and several WDFW representatives traveled to the Blackfoot watershed of Montana to see how land managers there dealt with the local population of grizzlies and wolves.

“They said you need four things,” Kehne said. “First, you need a good method of determining whether wolves killed livestock; that process has to be simple and straightforward. Then you need a compensation program, then a very strong non-lethal (deterrence) program, and then a very strong lethal (removal) program.”

Those are all aspects of Washington’s wolf management plan, Kehne said, adding that even with the best plans in place, problems will invariably come up — in terms of both livestock predation and impacts on the populations of prey species like deer and elk. Some problems will be caused by wolves. But just some, not nearly all.

Wolves, he said, “are just one of the factors, just one of the predators and one of the impacts that happen to ungulates and anything else in nature. What about the effects of fire, of crought, of wolves on the cougar, bear and coyote populations. There’s a million things in nature, and yet (so many people) want to focus on what wolves are doing to deer and elk.”

Wolves, Becker said, “are only part of that. They’re not the whole story.

“But they’re like any predator or any animal. They do have to eat. And every once in a while they’re going to eat something people don’t think they should eat or don’t want them to eat. And that’s where the management aspect comes into play.”

 If you go

What: Public screening of BBC film “Land of the Lost Wolves” and panel discussion feature state wolf experts.

When: 7 to 9 p.m. tonight.

Where: Kendall Auditorium, YVCC campus, 16th Avenue and Nob Hill Boulevard.

Admission: free (donation requested).

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