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Rich Landers: An issue of prey, not the endangered predator

Thu., May 29, 2014

Wildlife managers are tiptoeing through the recovery of gray wolves in Washington.

Some special-interest groups are entrenched poles apart, with livestock growers and hunters who have the most to lose on one side and pro-wolf and anti-hunting groups on the other.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department can expect waves of reaction in wolf-related actions, especially those involving attacks on livestock or killing a problem wolf.

Last month, the agency contracted with Responsive Management for a rare step in Washington wildlife management – a statewide telephone survey of public opinion focused on “wildlife that cause problems,” with emphasis on wolf management.

A summary of results was presented last week in Spokane during a meeting of the state’s wolf advisory group, which is comprised essentially of the special interest groups most likely to sue the agency if wolves aren’t managed to their liking. Extreme opposites, such as the Humane Society of the United States and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, sit at the same table.

The survey offers some support for the way the state has treated wolf issues. The numbers suggest biologists get a majority thumbs up for efforts that range from encouraging ranchers to be proactive in preventing wolf depredations to lethally removing the entire Wedge Pack after it had demonstrated a clear preference for a rancher’s “slow elk” rather than real elk.

Following are the key findings, give-or-take 3.3 percent, pollsters extracted from the random sample of 900 Washington resident adults.

Predators in general are regarded by most residents to be important to a healthy ecosystem. About 70 percent support maintaining sustainable predator populations; 15 percent don’t.

Even though anti-wolf sentiment can ooze thick in some communities, wolf recovery is supported by 64 percent of Washington residents; 27 percent oppose it. The support drops slightly to 57 percent if wolf recovery were to result in localized declines in elk and deer.

Support for wolf recovery isn’t blind protectionism. About 74 percent of residents favor removing wolves from the endangered species list once they’ve recovered to population targets cited in the state wolf management plan.

How are Washington wildlife biologists doing when it comes to dealing with wolves that are naturally re-colonizing their niches in the state? Most residents don’t have a clue.

When asked to rate the department’s management of wolves in Washington, 53 percent didn’t know what rating to give.

While 10 percent rate the state’s wolf management as poor, most are not tuned in.

Polarized factions seem to dominate the opinion buzz on this question. Residents who don’t give the agency high ratings for wolf management tend to either think there already are too many wolves or that there are not enough wolves.

Many residents say the state does not communicate effectively about wolves, the survey found. They indicated they would like to be informed about human-wildlife conflicts by direct mail (25 percent), Internet (23 percent), newspapers (23 percent), television (23 percent) and email (17 percent).

Unfortunately, the survey didn’t ask people who requested direct mail updates if they would pay the postage.

Inevitable wolf conflicts with humans generate some of the toughest decisions for wildlife managers. The survey found:

• 61 percent of residents favor cost-share funding for livestock growers to help prevent wolves from attacking stock.

• 63 percent support some level of lethal wolf control to protect livestock, but 28 percent oppose.

Wolves that have a severe impact on elk or deer get a little more public leeway than if they’re munching on beef or mutton. About 55 percent support some level of lethal wolf control to protect big game; 32 percent oppose.

The public appears to be concerned about the impact a fully recovered wolf population might have, but not overwhelmingly in favor of protecting big game in numbers to satisfy hunters, or the outfitters and small communities that depend on their business.

While 58 percent of residents say they’re concerned about the impact wolves might have on elk populations, most of them are only “somewhat” or “a little” concerned.

A similar question regarding wolf impacts on livestock found that 71 percent are concerned including 29 percent who are extremely or very concerned. About 22 percent of state residents are “not at all” concerned whether wolves gobble up a rancher’s profits.

Hunting for wolves, which could eventually be allowed as a management tool, gets mixed reviews.

If wolves reach recovery thresholds, 63 percent of residents would support a wolf hunting season and 28 percent would oppose it. About a quarter of the opposition comes from people who are generally against all types of hunting.

But the support for wolf hunting varies depending on the reason:

• 69 percent would support hunting to maintain population objectives; 23 percent oppose.

• 65 percent support it to address livestock attacks; 25 oppose.

• 61 percent support it to address impacts on big game; 29 oppose.

• Only 38 percent support hunting wolves for recreation; 53 percent oppose – and most opposition is rated as “strong.”

Washington’s connections to the outdoors were sized up in the survey, revealing that 77 percent of adults have participated in outdoor recreation on state-owned land in the past years: 57 percent went hiking, 47 viewed wildlife, 45 went camping, 42 fishing, 39 boating, 34 swam in natural waters.

Only 17 percent went hunting in the past two years while 20 percent consider themselves hunters and 35 percent of those surveyed went hunting at some point in their lives.

About 48 percent of state residents indicate they are not hunters and aren’t likely to be one. On the other hand, 13 percent of nonhunters say they might consider it. If that number were higher, it would be good for wolves.

While opinions run strongly on certain wildlife management issues, the survey found that only 25 percent of state residents are members or contributors to an organization that promotes wildlife conservation or habitat enhancement.

Hunters, who pay the bills for big-game habitat programs, are the best friend the pro-wolf factions could want – a special interest group dedicated to maintaining healthy deer, elk and moose populations.

Although the survey indicates the public doesn’t totally get it, wolf issues center around the prey, not the predator.

Keep the pantry full and room at the table and issues of whether a few wolves need to be killed to keep the peace will be moot.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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