Last week, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife responded to a request from the governor to kill fewer wolves.
In a letter dated Nov. 27, but made available Monday, WDFW addressed Gov. Jay Inslee’s Sept. 30 letter asking the agency to kill fewer wolves in response to repeated wolf attacks on cattle in Northeast Washington.
WDFW’s response letter, signed by Director Kelley Susewind, outlines several steps the department has taken or will take to try and reduce conflict. Many of the tactics mentioned have been done.
“We all share the perspective that something has to change to reduce the loss of both wolves and livestock in this area,” Susewind wrote.
In particular, the Wolf Advisory Group is in the process of revising the wolf-livestock interaction protocol. The revision, according to the letter, will focus on the “use of proactive, nonlethal tools,” design plans for specific livestock operations and “advises an outcome if plans are not implemented.”
The revised protocol should be complete in late January. WDFW has also met with the U.S. Forest Service, the land manager for the bulk of the conflict areas. Those meetings, Susewind wrote, focused on short-term nonlethal options, like range riding, and longer-term options, such as changing grazing allotment rules and locations.
Kim Thorburn, a Fish and Wildlife Commission member from Spokane, said the steps outlined in WDFW’s letter were happening before Inslee’s letter.
“The department has been doing what the governor requested,” she said.
Inslee’s letter concerned Thorburn because it “seemed very definitive: Stop killing wolves. And that is a tool in the toolbox that we can’t let go of,” she said.
But in a conversation with Inslee, she said he assured her that was not his intent.
“The commission really stands behind the department on the work they are doing with wolves and wolf recovery,” she said. “Hopefully this satisfies the governor and we can keep managing wolves with all the tools we need.”
For Chris Bachman, the wildlife program director at the Spokane-based Lands Council, the letter’s mention of increased communication and coordination between WDFW and the Forest Service is a positive step.
“I look forward to seeing follow-through,” Bachman said.
For the past several years, Bachman has advocated for changes in grazing practices in certain areas of the Colville National Forest. Specifically, he believes if cows were put out in lower elevation allotments, the number of wolf attacks would decrease.
For that reason, any increase in communication between WDFW and the Forest Service is a good thing, he said. Still, a recent conversation he had with Forest Service staff in Northeast Washington indicated resistance to that kind of change. Last week, a Forest Service staff member asked him why the agency should change its practices for a species that is federally recovered, Bachman said.
Wolves are federally delisted in the eastern third of Washington, although they remain a state listed species throughout the state.
“Should they be modifying their grazing practice to help support recovery statewide of an endangered species? I would hope that the answer to that is yes,” he said. “(But) it doesn’t seem to be their position.”
Others were more critical.
“Well, it’s basically a nothing burger in my opinion,” said Hank Seipp, the founder of Western Wildlife Conservation, a Spokane-based advocacy group. “They have been collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service for years.”
In September, the citizens group paid for a billboard on Interstate 5 near Seattle calling for Inslee to stop the state from killing wolves. Seipp believes that some ranchers refuse to adapt to the fact that wolves are back in Washington.
For Seipp, WDFW’s letter just restated what the agency has already done, steps he believes aren’t working.
Conservation Northwest, an organization that has actively partnered with ranchers, the state and Northeast Washington residents, declined to comment in detail on WDFW’s response, opting instead to wait until after the WAG “agrees on more specific steps.”
Executive Director Mitch Friedman pointed out that wolf recovery in Washington has been an overall success, in addition to restating the importance of nonlethal deterrents.
“While there have been problem areas, Washington has made great strides toward coexistence through collaboration, particularly in keeping incidents of wolf removal infrequent compared to other states, even as our wolf population continues to grow and expand its range,” he said in a statement.