OLYMPIA – The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission on Saturday approved a proposed plan for managing gray wolves, a decision sure to spark criticism from hunting and livestock groups that complained it calls for too many of the predators.
Members of the commission called the plan a good compromise that will keep wolf management in the hands of state officials instead of the federal government. They emphasized Saturday that the management of wolves in Washington was a work in progress and that the plan was merely a guide for future action.
Commission Chairwoman Miranda Wecker said the panel shouldn’t overemphasize the importance of the management plan.
“What matters most is how we react to wolves on the ground,” she said.
Wecker said the plan establishes Washington state as the authority over what happens to wolves and other wildlife in the state, instead of the federal government.
“As long as we have no plan, we are extremely limited in our management authority,” she said before the vote was taken. Wecker said this understanding is what pushed her to vote for it after feeling very conflicted in the days before Saturday’s hearing.
State wildlife officials have been working since 2007 to determine how best to recover wolves in their historic territory and ultimately delist them from endangered species protections, while reducing and managing wolf conflicts with livestock and humans.
Wolves migrated to Washington from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia, though they are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and as endangered in the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife released the proposal this past summer. Some 65,000 written comments were submitted, ranging from advocates who say wolves play a vital role in the ecosystem to hunters and ranchers who fear they will eat too many elk, deer and livestock. Nineteen meetings were held to gather public comments.
Ultimately, a 17-member citizen advisory group was unable to unanimously agree on the proposal despite months of discussion. Critics, including hunting and livestock groups, argued the plan simply calls for too many wolves, although the Washington Farm Bureau and Washington State Sheep Producers signed off on the proposal.
Under the plan, 15 successful breeding pairs would be required for three consecutive years to remove endangered species protections. Four breeding pairs would be required in Eastern Washington, the North Cascades and the South Cascades or Northwest coast, as well as three other pairs anywhere in the state.