Washington is already home to five packs of gray wolves, and state wildlife managers are planning for more.
On Thursday, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission deliberated on a wolf management plan with dual goals of re-establishing wolves across the state while building public support for the top-line predators.
Addressing livestock predation and potential impacts on elk herds are critical to long-term “social tolerance” of wolves, commissioners agreed.
“We’re not talking about a fragile, decreasing wolf population – we’re talking about a rapidly increasing population that we’re going to have to control,” said Chuck Perry, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner from Moses Lake.
Since the first pack was documented in 2008, Washington’s wolf population has grown to an estimated 25 to 30 animals in five packs. Northeast Washington, with three wolf packs, has the highest concentration so far, but the state’s best wolf habitat is in the Southern Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula’s interior. The state’s wolf management plan, scheduled for adoption in December, calls for a minimum of 15 breeding pairs distributed across the state.
Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it’s in the state’s best interest to adopt a plan before the federal government completes a status review of wolves in the Lower 48 states.
As part of that review, which is expected in February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider the status of wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington, which is still protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The federal government could opt to reclassify those wolves as part the Northern Rockies population, which is already delisted. Another option would be to create a new federal management zone, which would include wolves in Western Washington, Western Oregon and the Sierra Nevadas of California and Nevada.
Under either scenario, Washington would benefit by having a management plan in place, Anderson said. With a sound wolf plan, the federal government is more likely to give the state greater management options for Washington wolves that remain federally protected, he said.
Joe Peone, wildlife director for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, urged the commission to consider wolves’ future impact on deer and elk herds. With the tribe’s unemployment rate at 60 percent, many members hunt for food.
“We want to support wolves, but our priority is protecting our members’ opportunity to subsistence hunt,” Peone said.
In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where wolf populations number more than 1,600 wolves, most elk and deer populations remain at or above management objectives, state biologists said. Elk herds have declined in some areas, but wolves are typically one of several causes for lower numbers, including degraded habitat and predation by other carnivores. Under specific circumstances, Washington’s plan would allow killing wolves to reduce pressure on ungulate herds, including northeast Washington’s endangered woodland caribou. But wolf numbers would have to exceed management objectives in the area for wolves to be killed.
Wolf predation on livestock is also a concern. The plan calls for relocating or killing wolves that kill livestock, and paying ranchers for the loss. Tonasket rancher Daryl Asmussen said the compensation program sounds good, but it isn’t practical. His cows graze in the deep timber, where carcasses aren’t visible, he said.
Commissioners also wondered how the state would pay for wolf management, estimated to cost at least $350,000 to $400,000 annually. Anderson said his agency is looking for additional revenue, including selling wolf license plates.
“Whether you love them or hate them,” money for wolf management “is paramount,” Anderson said.
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