Five states are working at dramatically different paces to deal with the reintroduction of gray wolves.
Wyoming’s kill ’em on sight plan landed them in last place, mired in court rulings that left their wolves on the endangered species list.
Montana and Idaho are heading into the second year of actively managing delisted wolves with sport hunting, which the states plan to ramp up to kill more wolves this season.
Idaho is even considering trapping and baiting after hunters failed to kill the quota of wolves in remote areas where packs were decimating elk herds.
Oregon led the pack of states dealing with gray wolf reintroduction by adopting a management plan in 2005 – long before wolves had been documented as breeding in the state.
Washington, however, continues to scratch away at a plan despite being on par with Oregon as home for two confirmed wolf packs heading into this year’s denning season. Washington officials also suspect a few more pairs might be breeding.
Meanwhile, the door remains open to wolves wandering in from Canada and Idaho.
The most contentious point among the proposals centers on the number of wolves Washington will tolerate.
The draft plan sets the threshold at 15 breeding pairs. Once that number is reached, the state’s wolf protections could be relaxed and management options, such as hunting, would be on the table. (The gray wolf is an endangered species throughout Washington under state law, while still protected by federal law only in the western two-thirds of the state.)
But the number 15 isn’t making anyone happy in a state that tends to be polarized into more conservative east-side camps and more liberal west-side contingents.
“The science tells us that 15 breeding pairs qualifying for recovery is not high enough for sustainable populations,” said John Blankenship, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and the current executive director of Wolf Haven International in Tenino, Wash.
Jack Field, Washington Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president, sees it differently: “Fifteen is too many – I hope we’ve learned at least that much from the experience of Idaho and Montana.”
Blankenship and Field were named in 2007 to the 18-member citizen working group that helped the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife formulate its draft plan. Field co-authored a working group minority report that recommended a threshold of eight breeding pairs.
For comparison, Oregon’s plan would allow wolf management to begin at seven breeding pairs
“I think the proposed number wolves must reach in Washington before they can be managed is high compared with other Rocky Mountain states that have more suitable habitat and lower (human) population densities,” said Tommie Petrie Jr., another group member and hunter who lives in Pend Oreille County.
“The faster we can get to management status, the better off the wolves are going to be, no matter where you stand,” he said.
Scientific backing can be found to support the broad range of these conflicting viewpoints.
Three anonymous wolf experts, their locations undisclosed but apparently from North America, were contracted through the University of Washington for a blind peer review of the state’s latest revised draft plan.
“For many of us in the conservation world, the peer review comments are what we’d hoped for,” said Linda Saunders, Wolf Haven’s conservation director. “They’ve mirrored a lot of our concerns: mainly that the number of pairs the plan cites as substantial enough for recovery (15) is not based on science. At the minimum maybe we should be looking at twice that number.”
Blankenship, Saunders’ boss, tends to favor letting nature run its course, although he acknowledges that Washington’s wolf-sustaining deer and elk herds should not be equally compared to those in Montana or Idaho.
“Even if you left wolves alone and stepped in only to take care of depredation, there probably would be room for only a couple hundred wolves in Washington,” he said. “Some scientists say the habitat and prey base isn’t there.
“Will the wolves turn on livestock?” he said, anticipating the next question. “We don’t know. They multiplied much faster than experts expected in the Northern Rockies. Only time will tell how fast they will multiply in Washington.”
That leads to the draft plan’s other hot topic: compensation to ranchers who lose livestock to wolves.
“The compensation package for livestock growers is outstanding,” Field said, “but without funding, it’s an empty mandate and little more than bait to get livestock producers on board. So far there’s no commitment to funding, so there’s no support from the livestock community.”
Sportsmen’s groups contend the proposed plan is too vague on how much wolves would be allowed to gnaw away at already struggling deer and elk herds.
“Hunters and the economy they support don’t appear to have much standing in the plan, the way I see it,” said Duane Cocking, a working group panelist and member of Safari Club International.
When the working group meets for the last time in late summer, the livestock grower and sportsman contingents will try to make the case that so-called Population Viability Analysis should be given more weight in the plan.
This effort to balance social and biological aspects of wolf management is generally supported by the blind peer review.
“PVA looks at all factors that would influence a specific area or game management region,” said Field. “The PVA would consider ungulate herds, hunting and existing harvest, for example, as well as livestock, and then move forward in a holistic fashion.”
Environmental representatives likely will come to the final meeting holding firm to a minimum of 15 breeding pairs or more.
WDFW officials have been chary to be specific on changes as they’ve pored through nearly 7,000 public comments this spring.
However, they indicated they won’t be swayed in a major way by the 51,000 e-mail comments channeled to the Washington governor’s office by the Defenders of Wildlife.
“All comments are considered,” said Rocky Beach, WDFW wildlife diversity manager. “But you have to use common sense when you categorize comments; there’s a lesser weight to all that duplicity.”
Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department’s wolf coordinator warns Washington that much can change as the wolf plan enters its last stage.
“After two years and the largest public involvement process our agency had every undertaken,” said Russ Morgan in La Grande, “our (Fish and Wildlife) Commission made more than 200 changes to the draft before adopting the plan.”