MOSES LAKE – Julia Smith is a relative newbie when it comes to Washington’s wolf issues.
But the statewide wolf coordinator is no newbie to the predatory canines. Prior to coming to WDFW nine months ago, she worked with wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. That work gives her a larger perspective on Washington’s wolf issues.
“Wolf conflict is heated here,” she said during an interview at the Wolf Advisory Group meeting Tuesday. “But it’s much lower here.”
That may be hard to believe during a summer dominated by news of wolves killing and injuring cattle, the state killing wolves, environmental groups filing lawsuits and WDFW canceling a series of statewide meetings due to threats of violence.
Still, Smith said there’s reason for optimism, despite those issues.
“Look at how wolves didn’t exist here 10 years ago,” she said. “That’s important to me. That’s incredible to me. That’s a success story.”
In other states, she said, its not uncommon for there to be 100 or more cattle depredations per year. As of July, there had been 43 confirmed wolf attacks on cattle in the past 10 months in Washington. The majority of those attacks came from two wolf packs, the Togo and Old Profanity Territory (OPT). Meanwhile, roughly 80% of the known wolf packs in Washington have not attacked cattle in the past 10 months.
“The big difference here in Washington is the large emphasis on nonlethal deterrents,” Smith said.
More money is being funneled into nonlethal measures this year after the passing of a new law that directs the state to spend nearly $1 million over the next two years on nonlethal deterrents in northeastern Washington.
In 2018, four wolves were killed by WDFW, representing 3% of the state’s total population. According to an analysis by Conservation Northwest, “when the Rocky Mountain States of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were at the same point 11 years into wolf recovery, lethal control for livestock depredations amounted to 142 wolves or 12 percent of their total minimum wolf count.”
Others at the WAG meeting echoed Smith’s position. “Where else in the country do we have ranchers sitting in the same room as the director of wolf sanctuary?” asked Diane Gallegos, the director of Wolf Haven International, during Wednesday’s meeting.
Jess Kayser, a rancher near Goldendale, Washington, and a WAG member, said the attacks on cattle are devastating to those ranchers. But overall, he said, recovery and coexistence is moving in a good direction.
“The bad news gets all the press,” he said.
But there are still issues.
Chronically depredating packs, like the OPT, are angering ranchers and hurting their business, they contend. Meanwhile, wolf advocates feel that WDFW kills wolves too quickly, bending to the will of the ranching industry. Two lawsuits have been filed against the agency alleging that it broke the law in authorizing killing of wolves.
If the anger and outrage grows too large, it could influence more moderate ranchers and wolf advocates to head to the fringes of the argument, said Paula Swedeen, Conservation Northwest’s policy director and a member of the WAG. It could also hamstring the collaborative work that groups like the WAG and others are doing.
“As we know, wolves are emotional,” Swedeen said. “It’s an emotional and intense topic.”