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The latest clash over managing Washington’s wolves

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The latest clash over managing Washington’s wolves

Sep 20, 2023 | 6:56 pm ET
By Laurel Demkovich
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The latest clash over managing Washington’s wolves
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A gray wolf. (Getty Images)

Eleven conservation groups are asking Washington state to tighten its guidelines for when wolves that attack livestock can be killed.

The groups are concerned too many wolves are dying needlessly under the current system. Their petition to Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission describes the existing standards the state uses to authorize lethal action against the animals as “ineffective,” and calls for the panel to open a process to update the rules.

Since 2012, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife authorized the killing of 44 wolves due to livestock conflicts, according to the petition. Six wolves were killed last year after conflicts with livestock, according to the department’s annual wolf management report. 

The groups want the state to follow a more rigid protocol before killing a wolf. Although wildlife officials say they often already take steps along the lines of what the groups are seeking. 

“The current system the department uses to make that decision is a mess,” said Claire Loebs Davis, president of Washington Wildlife First, one of the groups pressing for the changes. 

“There’s no predictability at this point when the department will decide to kill wolves,” she said. “There’s no transparency into the process.”

Julia Smith, the Fish and Wildlife Department’s wolf policy lead, said establishing a stricter rule like the conservationists want would be inflexible and could create problems. 

“It’s impossible to predict all of the variables in each situation,” she said. “Our current process allows a lot of thoughtfulness.”

Familiar fault lines

Washington Wildlife First joined the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, and seven other organizations that filed the petition. The commission could take it up as soon as their October meeting, though no agenda has been finalized yet.

Similar requests have come before the Fish and Wildlife Commission in recent years. 

In 2020, the commission rejected a petition to open rulemaking on wolf management. A few months later, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the Department of Fish and Wildlife to look at the issue, but the commission did not end up adopting any rule changes.

The petitioners may hit similar roadblocks this time as the department is recommending that the commission not accept any of the proposals. 

The groups’ petition would clarify a number of pieces of the agency’s wolf policy, including how many conflicts must happen before the department can consider killing wolves and what options must be exhausted before moving to lethal methods.

Davis, with Washington Wildlife First, said the proposals would be similar to guidance the department already follows, but with more mandatory requirements.

The petition also calls for eliminating wolf killings on public land, limiting the use of what the group calls “caught-in-the-act” killings where ranchers come upon wolves preying on livestock, and requiring the department to create a mitigation plan for areas where wolves have had repeated run-ins with cattle.

Gray wolves in Washington are classified as “endangered” under state law. Wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are also considered endangered at the federal level while wolves in eastern Washington have no federal protections. 

Managing the species and boosting its population in the state has long been controversial. 

Groups like the Washington Cattlemen’s Association have pushed to roll back wolf protections, supporting a failed bill last legislative session to allow the Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage wolves as if they were not endangered if the species met certain population thresholds. 

During a public comment period at a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in August, wolf advocates sparred with hunters and ranchers over the proposed rule changes in the conservation groups’ petition, as well as a pending proposal to downlist some wolves in the state from endangered to sensitive

While those who support added protections said members of the public are angry by state-sanctioned wolf killings, those against said changes like the proposals in the petition would hinder the state’s already strained relationship with ranchers. 

“The petition seeks to make managing wolves harder and is an anti-ranching petition,” Dane Czarnecki, a King County resident, hunter and member of Howl for Wildlife, a group that advocates on wildlife management issues as well as hunting and fishing policy, told the commission. “These petitioners have a personal vendetta against a decent working family.” 

‘Not based on some hypothetical situation’

Smith, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, disagrees that the department’s current wolf management policies are ineffective or set too low a bar for using lethal controls. There is a process that the department follows before killing a wolf, she said – and it’s a long one. 

It can take up to a week after a wolf threatens or kills livestock for an agency team to determine that a lethal option is the best next step. Smith said ranchers have criticized this timeline as too long.

A number of thresholds, as set in the 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, must be met before deciding to kill a wolf. These include a certain number of attacks by the wolf on livestock, attempts to use nonlethal tools to control the wolf, and proof that lethal removal would actually make a difference in the situation.

“It’s not based on some hypothetical situation,” Smith said. “It’s based on a particular incident.”  

If wolf killings are authorized, Smith said the department takes “an incremental approach,” where they remove one or two wolves at a time to disrupt a pack’s patterns.

As for killing wolves, she added, “That’s not something any of us wants to do.”