Howling has been heard. Massive, fist-sized paw prints are regularly spotted in the snowy backcountry of northeastern Washington.
The signs are clear, according to federal and state scientists: Wolves are returning to Washington. Although there’s no evidence a full-fledged pack has set up housekeeping in the state, experts say it’s just a matter of time.
To prepare for the return, the state has put together a panel of 18 hunters, ranchers, environmentalists and biologists to help Washington craft a wolf management plan.
Over the next year the group will meet in hopes of finding some sort of consensus in how the state should manage the wolves, which were eradicated from Washington by the 1930s. Some 1,200 gray wolves now roam Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Many more live in Canada.
A few of these are now regularly venturing into Washington – mostly into the far northeastern corner of the state, but there are also unconfirmed reports of wolves in the Blue Mountains in the southeastern part of the state, said Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“They’re going to naturally come back. We’re not going to bring them in from Canada,” Luers said, addressing a commonly held concern. “What we need to do is get prepared to deal with managing wolves as they recover on their own.”
Washington is not part of a federally designated wolf recovery area so the state would have no federal obligation to ensure the existence of the predator once Endangered Species Act protections are removed, which is widely expected to happen by the end of the year, said Tom Buckley, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Buckley applauded Washington’s approach of working with a diverse group of state residents to find an acceptable place for wolves in the state.
“They’re taking a very sound approach,” he said.
A proposal to take wolves off the endangered species list will likely be announced next week. The public will be allowed to comment on the idea before it’s finalized. Even if wolves are no longer protected under federal law – there are many ifs in the process, including possible lawsuits from conservation groups and Wyoming’s development of an acceptable wolf management plan – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to keep a close watch on states’ management of wolves for at least five years, Buckley said.
Wolves will remain protected under Washington state law, Luers said. This reflects the state’s belief that wolves have a right to exist here.
“We would not have listed them at the state level as endangered and in need of state protection if we felt otherwise,” Luers said.
The main question, though, is how many wolves and where. The new panel of citizens will be asked to study the approaches of other states and try to find some consensus. Members of the group include cattle ranchers, a sheep producer, environmentalists, local government officials and hunters. Fifty-six people applied to be on the team. State fish and wildlife experts will work with the team as technical advisers.
Spokane resident Derrick Knowles, who works for Conservation Northwest, said the panel represented a “good balance” of interests. Knowles also said Washington is in an enviable spot of being able to learn from the controversies and successes experienced by other states, particularly Idaho, where wolves have been a hot-button issue since they were reintroduced 12 years ago.
“We don’t have the baggage that Idaho has, the history Idaho has. We’re in a better position,” Knowles said, adding it’s wise for the state to develop a plan before resident packs are confirmed. “Getting an early start on these conversations is going to be helpful.”
Knowles, like several other team members contacted for this story, insisted he was keeping an open mind on how wolves should be managed. John Blankenship, executive director of Wolf Haven International, said his main goal was to make sure any management plan was fair to both wolves and ranchers.
“I think we can do that,” said Blankenship, who spent 30 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including on wolf issues. “I don’t think either should have the advantage.”
The mantra of common ground and fairness was even repeated by two team members who are arguably have the most opposing positions. Art Swannack, president of the Washington Sheep Producers, admitted wolves were not good for his business.
“I’ve got sheep. They’re wolf food,” the Lamont resident said.
But he also believes that the work of the team could help avert problems. “It’s going to take a lot of management planning, plain and simple,” Swannack said.
Snohomish resident Kim Holt, on the other hand, said she “came out of the womb loving wolves,” and now serves as the secretary-treasurer of the Wolf Recovery Foundation.
“For some reason, wolves have just captured my heart,” she said. “They need some help. I’m just real excited to get started, to get in on the ground floor of how Washington manages wolves.”
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Zender said wolf sightings in Washington are currently clustered in an area between the Pend Oreille River and the Idaho border.
“We don’t know of any confirmed packs with pups,” Zender said. “Even if you could confirm it, so what – they might be 50 miles away by the time you even get the call.”
There are three known packs in the Idaho Panhandle, said Jim Hayden, biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department. The closest to Coeur d’Alene is a pack in the St. Joe River area near Avery. The Calder Mountain pack wanders the backcountry northeast of Sandpoint. Another roams near the Canadian border north of Bonners Ferry.