July 25, 2012

How many wolves in Washington?

By Brian T. Hodges Senior Attorney

Last December, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a gray wolf conservation plan that establishes the Evergreen State’s policy for managing gray wolves within its borders.  The plan was produced in anticipation that the number of gray wolves in Washington will continue to increase, mainly as a result of wolves migrating west from Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, where the once-endangered species is thriving.

When the Commission adopted the plan, there were only five confirmed wolf packs in Washington.  Now it appears the Commission might have severely underestimated how many wolves they are dealing with.  As of July 17 of this year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed the existence of seven packs (eight if you count the Nc’icn pack on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation), and suspects that there are at least an additional four packs that have not been confirmed.  Most of the packs are concentrated in the northeastern corner of the state, but at least one pack is suspected to exist in the southeast, and two packs have been confirmed to be roaming the northern stretches of the Cascades.  One Cascade pack, the “Teanaway,” ranges not so far from the Greater Seattle area, where most Washingtonians live.

The Commission might be beginning to realize that the return of the wolf to Washington is interfering with ranchers and shepherds, as many warned when the plan was being considered.  In June, for instance, the Department confirmed that an attack on domestic sheep in Spokane County was the work of a wolf.  Such attacks, which can cost livestock producers thousands of dollars in property loss, are becoming more common as wolves colonize the state.

There are more wolves in Washington than anybody knew when the wolf plan was being developed, but it remains to be seen whether the Commission will revisit the plan.  Perhaps the Commission would entertain the idea of “downlisting” the wolf from “endangered” to “threatened” or “sensitive” under Washington’s endangered species regulations.  Such a move would seem to be consistent with the wolf plan, which calls for downlisting when the state has six breeding pairs.  Furthermore, the new wolf numbers that have recently come to light might even necessitate reworking the plan immediately to offer some relief for residents who are struggling to find ways to effectively protect their property from wolves.  The Commission’s Position Statement on the wolf plan seems to support such action because the Commission stated that heading off livestock depredation was a high priority.

Nevertheless, revising the plan could be an exercise in futility if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines that wolves in the Pacific Northwest are a “distinct population segment” protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.  The Service could issue a decision to that effect in September.  We have already urged the Service not to designate a Pacific Northwest DPS on the grounds that gray wolves in Washington do not meet the legal criteria for such a designation.

In the meantime, farmers, ranchers, and other Washington residents are waiting to see if the state will take any additional action to address growing conflicts between people and wolves.

KING 5 news in Seattle ran this story a few days ago:

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