Washington state officials draft wolf plan

Nov 2, 2009



Washington state officials draft wolf plan

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Ellensburg, WA-based Washington Cattlemen’s Association, fears his state’s proposed gray wolf management plan sets the number of allowed breeding pairs way too high. He also doubts the Evergreen State can afford the plan’s generous compensation for ranchers who lose livestock to the predators.

On Oct. 5, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) released a draft management plan for the wolves, which are federally protected as endangered in the western two-thirds of the state and state-protected throughout Washington. Unlike neighboring Idaho and Montana, no hunting of wolves is allowed in Washington state.

The compensation to Washington ranchers has been called the most generous for livestock losses in the West. The preferred of four alternatives offers twice the value of cattle or sheep confirmed killed by wolves on grazing sites of 100 acres or more, and full value on sites less than 100 acres.

It also offers full value for animals considered "probable depredation" by wolves on grazing sites of 100 acres or more and half the value of animals on sites less than 100 acres. State or federal officials would determine whether wolves were responsible for the kills.

Preliminary estimates say managing the wolves could cost Washington state $326,000 in 2010 and up to $665,000 annually by 2012.

Field was on a 17-member citizens advisory committee that provided input the past two years on the nearly 350-page plan. He criticized WDFW for scheduling public meetings about the plan from Oct. 20 to Nov. 10—at the height of the hunting season when most hunters will not be able to attend.

"Either the department is completely ignorant and unable to understand stakeholders or the true motive is they are not interested in hearing the hunting perspective," Field told the Western Livestock Journal.

A final environmental impact statement on wolf recovery and management will be prepared after the public comment period ends on Jan. 8. The Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission is expected to decide next year whether to adopt the plan.

The plan sets minimum standards for downlisting and delisting wolves, provides guidelines for moving them to keep populations sustainable and manageable, dictates when and how wolves may be scared off or killed, and outlines how to balance the needs of the wolves with the desires of hunters.

Two packs totaling about a dozen wolves—the Lookout Pack and the Diamond Pack—have been identified in Washington. The first pack was confirmed in July 2008, the second, this past summer. Biologists also are investigating reports of possible wolf sightings in the Blue Mountains.

The plan calls for the state to delist the wolves as endangered when 15 breeding pairs have been documented for three years. At least two pair each would need to be in the Eastern Washington and Northern Cascades wolf recovery regions.

In a minority report that Field co-authored with five other wolf working group members, they warned Washington’s wolf population could grow by 24 percent, over the three years that 15 breeding pairs must be recorded, before limited wolf hunting would be allowed, creating a direct conflict with ranching and hunting in the state.

Consequently, the state could be looking at as many as 28 to 35 breeding pairs before control measures could be taken to control their growth, they stated. With a population of nearly 6.5 million people, Washington’s population density of 97.5 people per square mile is three to five times the density of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the minority report notes.

According to the Federal Register, Washington has only 297 square miles of suitable wolf habitat in its eastern third as opposed to Montana, 40,924 square miles; Idaho, 31,586 square miles; Wyoming, 29,808 square miles; Oregon, 2,556 square miles; and Utah, 1,635 square miles.

The wolf species is considered fully recovered and can be considered for delisting in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming if they can support 10 breeding pairs each for three years, the minority report points out.

The amount of suitable wolf habitat for the remaining two-thirds of Washington state is small isolated areas of the Okanogan, large amounts of marginal habitat north and south of Mount Rainier, and a large area in and around Olympic National Park, an area that strongly opposed wolf reintroduction several years ago.

The minority report proposes that if the state’s wolf population reaches eight breeding pair, or about 80 wolves, then they should be considered big game animals. Only if they got down to three breeding pairs should they be considered threatened.

"Wolf numbers between 50 and 100 animals should pose little detriment to the state’s livestock industry as a whole. ... As wolf populations become larger and more widely distributed, financial impacts are likely to accrue to more producers," the minority report says, adding 50 to 100 wolves also should not have a negative impact on big game hunting in Washington.

The sooner the state’s wolves can be removed from endangered and threatened status, the sooner livestock raisers and rural residents can better deal with problem wolves. And the sooner WDFW can manage them, the sooner they can be turned into assets through the sale of permits.

The minority report authors also expressed concerns that WDFW has not effectively demonstrated its ability to secure long-term funds required in management and compensation. "Without funding there is NO Support of any plan!!" they concluded.

Saying he is "extremely disappointed" with WDFW officials, Field remains adamant that 15 breeding pairs far exceed what is needed to protect livestock and big game in the state. He also questions allowing ranchers to kill wolves only if they are in the act of attacking livestock—killing, biting or wounding them—not just chasing or pursuing herds.

"There’s no way we can support nor will we support a plan that calls for 15 breeding pair. That’s going to spell a tumultuous future for the livestock industry and the hunting community in Washington state," Field told WLJ. "At the end of the day, the numbers are what’s going to sink us."

Washington state’s population density far exceeds that of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, so habitat requirements are different from those states, he repeated.

Some estimates say the cost of compensating ranchers for wolf depredation could range between $500,000 to $1 million annually, yet Washington legislators are considering slashing $5 million from the WDFW budget, he noted. "There’s no funding to pay for it. Unless the compensation is funded, it’s an empty promise."

The state’s livestock producers in general are disappointed by the high number of fast-breeding wolves allowed under the plan, Field said. He encouraged the public to express their concerns at the various meetings planned throughout Washington. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent