MOSES LAKE – Fearing violence, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has canceled a series of 14 wolf-related meetings.
“We got to a point where the department could simply not assure the safety of the public or the staff,” said Steve Pozzanghera, WDFW’s eastern region director.
WDFW staff announced the cancellation at the Wolf Advisory Group meeting in Moses Lake on Tuesday. The department is planning for when wolves are no longer a state or federally endangered species by developing a post-recovery conservation and management plan. Public input is necessary for that process. A Spokane meeting had been scheduled for Sept. 3.
While the meetings have been canceled, the process remains open to public comment online through Nov. 1.
Pozzanghera said as WDFW started planning the meetings, they worked with local law enforcement knowing wolf issues are usually contentious. That’s when they started seeing Facebook posts threatening violence, including threats focused around agency plans to kill wolves that had attacked cattle. The threats came from both wolf-partisans and wolf-haters.
“Both sides were playing equally poorly,” he said.
He declined to elaborate but did note the threats went above and beyond standard wolf passion.
“We had concerns,” he said. “Given that environment, these meetings wouldn’t be productive.”
Julia Smith, the statewide wolf coordinator, said the agency will continue to solicit public feedback and there will be three virtual open houses scheduled in lieu of in-person meetings.
“I’ve been yelled at and called evil,” she said. “We’re very used to that. Maybe we shouldn’t be.”
Wolves have killed and injured a number of cattle this summer, prompting WDFW to kill members of the Old Profanity Territory. WDFW also issued a lethal removal order for the Togo pack, although as of Tuesday no wolves had been killed by WDFW. The Old Profanity pack was completely removed by WDFW staff earlier this month, prompting anger and lawsuits from some environmental and conservation groups.
At the same time, some ranchers feel that WDFW hasn’t responded fast enough to reports of cattle depredations.
“There has been a lot of anger,” said Tim Coleman, executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group and a Wolf Advisory Group member. “A lot of anger. More than any other time. It has not simmered down.”
Currently, the FBI is investigating threats made against ranchers and WDFW officials in addition to reports of shot cattle, according to a Saturday report from Bloomberg. And in May, the Inlander reported that Rep. Matt Shea and some of his associates proposed sending wolf activists the severed tail and testicles of a wolf from North Idaho.
“It’s unfortunate that this topic has become so polarized and/or political that it would become too dangerous to have public meetings,” said Paula Swedeen, Conservation Northwest’s policy director and a member of the WAG.
Wolves are protected by state endangered species rules in the eastern third of the state, while they remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state. According to the state’s wolf recovery plan, wolves can be delisted after 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years or after officials document 18 breeding pairs in one year.
Under either scenario, the pairs have to be distributed evenly throughout the state’s three wolf management areas.
There are a minimum of 126 wolves, 27 packs and 15 breeding pairs in the state, according to a yearly WDFW survey. The state’s wolf population has grown, on average, 30% per year since the canines naturally returned to Washington in 2008.
When wolves are delisted – either at the state or federal level – WDFW hopes to have a management plan written and ready to go, Smith said. She anticipates the plan will be finalized in two to three years. The first step in that process is soliciting public comment and input.
“I think the worst thing that could happen is people stopping engaging with us,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had killed a member of the Togo wolf pack. They have not. A lethal removal order remains in place.