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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Disconnecting the dots

In this July 15, 2013  photo, a yearling female gray wolf is set in the shade by Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologists so it can continue waking from the effect of tranquilizers after it was captured and fitted with ear tags and a GPS collar in Pend Oreille County in Washington state. Environmental groups have withdrawn from talks aimed at updating the wolf management plan in Oregon. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Kerri Sandaine Lewiston Tribune

ASOTIN – Fish and wildlife officials in Washington are considering limiting the amount of sensitive data shared with counties about the exact locations of radio-collared gray wolves.

At this week’s Asotin County Commission meeting, Fish and Wildlife regional Director Steve Pozzanghera of Spokane said he’s gathering input from six counties in eastern Washington about possible changes to a gray wolf location data-sharing program that was launched in 2013.

Problems have occurred when maps get passed around communities and wolves get killed, Pozzanghera said.

“We want to keep the program in place, but we believe changes are necessary,” he said. “For one thing, the rules are not clear. It’s confusing, and I think we have to help you out in understanding what (information) you can and can’t provide to others.”

Asotin County Commissioner Brian Shinn said he remembers signing the data-sharing agreement when he was board chairman a few years ago.

“Frankly, it scared the hell out of me and I didn’t tell anybody anything,” Shinn said. “No one has tried to get any information out of me.”

Some livestock producers have access to the data, along with county officials and several sheriffs on the eastern side of the state. Pozzanghera said, to his knowledge, no information has been improperly shared in Asotin County.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is trying to strike a balance, he said. The goal is to help livestock producers protect their herds while also protecting the species.

One area of concern is how accurately the data pinpoints the location of wolves wearing the radio collars. A dot on a map shows up at 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. every day, making it easy for people to figure out where the animals are.

“We would like to look at a system that allows you to see the significant areas of use but provides greater protection of the exact location,” Pozzanghera said.

The state agency currently blocks data sharing with livestock producers from March 15 to June 1 to protect the breeding period and den locations. Once wildlife officials gained more experience, they realized the denning period in Washington actually begins around April 1 and lasts until mid-July, Pozzanghera said.

“We need to modify the blackout period,” he said. “Right now, counties are exempt. One thing we could do is black out that information for everyone, including counties.”

When collared wolves make a kill and bring back food items for the pups, it becomes pretty obvious where the dens are located, the regional director said. The tracking device shows the animals making forays and returning to a single point.

In other areas of the state, people have been spotted at den sites on cameras set up by biologists, he said.

According to Fish and Wildlife, the state now has at least 122 wolves, 22 packs and 14 successful breeding pairs.

In Southeastern Washington, three packs have been identified, including the Touchet and Tucannon packs. The Grouse Flats Pack, which roams an area near the Oregon border in the Blue Mountains, was added to the list last year.

All but eliminated from western states in the last century, Washington’s wolf population has rebounded since 2008, when wildlife managers documented a resident pack in Okanogan County.

According to a 2017 survey, 15 of the 22 known packs are located in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties in the northeast corner of the state.

Since 1980, gray wolves have been listed under state law as endangered throughout Washington. In the western two-thirds of the state, they also are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Pozzanghera met with county commissioners in Columbia, Garfield and Asotin this week to discuss data-sharing modifications. He’s also spoken to officials in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, north of Spokane.

He plans to summarize his discussions and get back to each county after an internal group reviews his report.

Asotin County Sheriff John Hilderbrand said he’d like to be part of the data-sharing program, “just to keep an eye on the Grouse Flats Pack.”

Val Mundell of Clarkston said he highly recommends county officials object to being in the dark during the blackout period.