New legislation could alter state’s wolf management efforts

By Cooper Inveen, WNPA News Olympia

As Washington’s gray wolf population continues to grow, so do concerns of some of those living in the areas of the state most affected by their return.

“There’s two sides to this issue, and it kind of boils down to either you like them or you don’t,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who co-sponsored several wolf-related bills this legislative session.

Seven bills relating to Washington’s gray wolves have been introduced to the 2015 Legislature, with four surviving for continuing consideration in their respective chambers this week. Together they could have a dramatic effect on Washington’s wolf-recovery policy.

Much of the wolf debate stems from an uneven distribution of wolves across the state. Ten of Washington’s 13 wolf packs reside in the state’s northeast corner, and the two largest recent attacks on livestock have both occurred in Stevens County. While Washington is on track to meet the state’s total wolf population objectives, there’s a long way to go before geographic distribution goals are met.

Although wolves are considered endangered at both the federal and state levels, the number of wolves in northeastern Washington has prompted demands that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) alter its classification of “endangered” to reflect an animal’s presence in a region rather than in the state as a whole. If wolves were reclassified this way, they would only be considered legally endangered in two-thirds of the state.

Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5583, which would give the WDFW the power to declassify an endangered species on a regional level. It would also require the department to respond to any petition to declassify with a full investigation and a written response explaining why it chose or chose not to declassify the species.

If the department does decide to declassify an endangered species, the bill would require it to construct an entirely new management system for the species based on populations in that particular region. The new system would have to consider “customs and culture of local communities over statewide goals for any species” undergoing a status change. The bill declares that the impact on local cultures and communities is “the paramount priority.”

Dave Dashiell of the Cattle Producers of Washington advocated for the bill at a committee hearing on February 5, saying he doubted cattle ranchers in Stevens County could “survive another five or six years waiting for [wolves] to be dispersed across the state.” His sheep flock, he reported, was the target of an attack last year that resulted in the deaths of at least 30 sheep and many more that were never located.

Nate Pamplin, assistant director for the WDFW wildlife program, strongly opposed the bill.

“The agency’s authority to list a species as endangered comes from that species of wildlife being seriously threatened with extinction in the state of Washington,” he said. “So if we were to set aside the regional contribution of a species, we are essentially setting aside that contribution to delisting that same species elsewhere in the state.”

As for the ranchers, Pamplin said the department already has a program in place to compensate those who have lost livestock to wolf attacks, and open-range ranchers can earn up to twice market-value on reimbursements for individual animals whose carcasses are never located. He said the department is currently processing Dashiell’s claim in a similar manner.

SB 5583 passed out of the Senate ways and means committee and is on the rules committee calendar for advancement. An identical bill in the House, co-sponsored by Kretz, died in committee after one public hearing.

Kretz has been concerned about wolf distribution since the beginning of the legislative session. During a presentation that WDFW’s wolf policy lead Dave Ware gave to a joint House and Senate committee last month, Kretz suggested using helicopters to relocate wolf packs to western Washington’s more populated areas, in an effort to take some of the burden off of his wolf-heavy district.

“There are those people who think wolves should be everywhere and should run the state,” Kretz said. “I would support them in Seattle particularly.”

Ware called the suggestion logistically and politically impossible.

Despite their disagreements, Ware supported one of Kretz’s bills during a public hearing in the House Appropriations Committee on February 26. HB 2107 would require the department to amend the 2011 wolf conservation and management plan to better address the uneven distribution. Among other things, the new plan would have to consider reducing or consolidating recovery zones, outline new attack prevention methods for ranchers and re-evaluate when lethal force can be used against individual wolves. It now awaits full House consideration.

“This is probably the best vehicle to address some of the concerns we’re getting from folks in northeastern Washington,” Ware said, seeing the bill as an appropriate compromise. Dansel’s companion bill in the Senate, SB 5960, passed out of the Senate ways and means committee on February 26 and could receive full Senate consideration this week.

One thing ranchers and conservationists consistently agree on is that they need to better understand the predatory impacts wolves have on the wild animals around them.

No official data exist on how elk and deer populations in the northeastern part of the state have been affected by the rising number of wolves there. The lack of data has sparked considerable debate between conservationists and hunters who worry that an increased wolf presence could harm game populations.

House Bill 1676 would shine light on that issue. The bill would require the University of Washington’s Predator Ecology Lab to assesses and report on the health of hooved animal populations in places with high wolf recovery rates. It’s also the only piece of wolf legislation to gain the approval of Conservation Northwest, which advocates for the protection of the region’s old growth forests and other wild places. It awaits assignment for full House consideration by the House rules committee.

The bill passed out of the House committee on general government and information Technology on February 26. UW researchers will have until October 2016 to deliver their report, although the bill would not take effect unless the Legislature allocates the necessary funding by June 30.

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