Washington cattlemen oppose state wolf plan

Nov 4, 2011

As the gray wolf expands its territory in the Northwest to previously unaffected areas, controversy over the species between ranchers and wildlife agencies is also spreading. In Washington, a petition filed with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission has brought the debate to the nation’s northwest corner.

The petition was filed last week by the Washington Cattlemen’s Association (WCA) as well as the Hunter Heritage Council, a group comprised of more than 50 hunting and wildlife organizations around Washington dedicated to the management of wildlife using sound science rather than political rhetoric. The petition calls for the immediate removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the gray wolf, under the state’s endangered species law, in the eastern third of the state. Federal restrictions in this region were lifted in May of this year, along with restrictions in Montana, Idaho and the eastern third of Oregon.

However, both Oregon and Washington list wolves under their own endangered species laws, a classification which affords many of the same protections for the predator provided by the federal listing, a designation that, according to WCA Executive Vice President Jack Field, leaves the state’s ranchers defenseless when wolves come calling.

“Today, they have absolutely no recourse. In the western two thirds of the state, the federal government has done nothing to address the possible take of a listed species. In the eastern third, our state fish and game has done nothing to authorize take of a listed species. As things stand right now, there’s absolutely nothing that can be done,” said Field.

Unlike most northwestern states, Washington currently has no concrete plan in place for managing wolves once federal restrictions are lifted. A compensation plan was put in place by the legislature three years ago, but Field is quick to point out that the necessary funding has never been provided by the state.

While neighboring Idaho and Oregon have had plans in place for several years, Washington’s management plan has only recently reached the final draft stages, and approval is not expected until later this year. However, acceptance of a new plan by the state may not signal relief.

Ranchers and sportsmen contend that the new plan as written focuses too heavily on recovery, while virtually ignoring the need for control and management of wolves. “There is a need for a very clear and concise management and control document to help us ensure that we’re not going to have the problems that we’re seeing everywhere around us with wolf re-colonization,” said Field, adding that the new plan’s similar ity to the management plan in neighboring Oregon has not escaped anyone’s notice.

Like Oregon, Washington’s plan to de-list under state law is based upon reaching various population goals. Until those goals are reached, ranchers faced with predation problems are at the mercy of Fish and Game officials to address the problem, or not, as they deem appropriate. This arrangement has led to considerable controversy in Oregon in recent years with ranchers, particularly in the state’s northeast corner, feeling that their livelihoods are being regarded as secondary to the goal of wolf recovery.

Field worries that Washington is headed down the same path to controversy with no hope of resolution. “Our plan is nearly identical to Oregon’s,” he points out. “All of the problems they are having, we’re going to have. We are set up to have the exact same outcome they are faced with, and that is unacceptable to us.”

Although Field indicates that the two groups would prefer to see wolves managed as a game animal in Washington, he says that language in the plan explicitly outlining when a lethal take of a wolf would be allowed would go a long way towards addressing rancher concerns.

“If they’re serious about management and control, they need to write a document that says that. Don’t write a plan that’s got 58 ways to give somebody a chance to litigate. If you’re serious about lethal take, just say that the department will use lethal take to manage problem wolves, period. But they don’t, they’ve got all this qualifying language and loopholes; it’s a nightmare. They’re approaching wolf recovery as if it were a butterfly, not an apex predator,” he says.

Although very similar to Oregon’s, the Washington management plan does differ on one key aspect. While the population goals outlined in the Oregon plan were set statewide, the Washington plan divides the state into three sections. Until population goals, ranging from four to six breeding pairs, are met and maintained for one year in all three regions, de-listing cannot take place anywhere in the state.

This means that ranchers facing wolf predation in eastern Washington may not be allowed to take defensive measures until wolves have established habitat hundreds of miles to the west. This does not come as welcome news to ranchers, such as Okanogan County’s John Dawson, who are already faced with problem wolves.

“We shouldn’t have to wait for the rest of the state to be populated before we can do something,” points out Dawson, “we’re right in the doorway.”

During June of this year, Dawson and his wife were approached by an adult female that came within 100 yards before disappearing. Within the next few days, Dawson and his son located a so called ‘rendezvous site’ with pups in a culvert under a nearby logging road.

During the following months, the Dawsons noted disturbing behavior changes in their cattle. “All of our cattle would stay bunched up, they would not disperse over the range,” says Dawson. “Even on the hottest day in August, those cows would lay out in the sun, rather than heading for the shade under the trees.”

According to Dawson, hunters in the area have seen wolves in or near his cattle on several occasions, and he worries that these behavior changes will lead to losses in weight and conception rates.

To date, five wolf packs have been acknowledged in Washington, mostly in the northeast corner and the northern Cascade Mountains. According to Dawson, there is a critical need for collared wolves in the area to allow Fish and Game officials to track their movements.

“Collars could at least tell us where they’re at, and what they’re doing,” said Dawson. Efforts by WDFW officials to capture an adult wolf in the region have so far proved futile. “We really needed that to happen, and they haven’t been able to get it done. It’s been pretty frustrating,” said Dawson.

“If Washington is going to protect them under their ESA, they’ve got to have a plan for what they’re going to do before this happens. But, instead, they want to get more introduced and get them spread around the state first. By then it’s going to be too late,” he adds.

Under the law, the Fish and Game Commission has 60 days to respond to the petition put forth by WCA and the Hunter Heritage Council. Field has every expectation that their petition will be denied. A similar petition, filed by the Okanogan County Commissioners, was denied earlier this month and Field sees no reason why theirs will be treated differently.

However, he points out that neither group plans to stop fighting when their petition is denied. “At the end of the day, WCA is going to fight this thing to the end, even if that means we end up in court,” asserts Field. “The gloves are off; we’re done trying to be nice and proactive.

“We’ve tried that for three years, and it’s gotten us nowhere. This idea that we have to approach recovery with kid gloves is a joke. At the end of the day, the two groups that are going to pay are livestock producers and sportsmen.

“That’s what’s happened in Idaho, it’s happened in Montana and Wyoming, it’s happening in Oregon, and it’s going to happen in Washington, and it doesn’t have to.” —Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent