The mandate of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is to preserve, protect and perpetuate the state’s fish and wildlife. It is an awesome and daunting responsibility in the Western state with the smallest land mass and second-highest human population. The duty is further complicated by the need for a public agency to balance the diverse values, interests and needs of all of its constituents.
Washington’s large and growing human population signifies less space for wildlife and more unwanted human encounters. This means much Fish and Wildlife Department mission effort is expended on managing human-wildlife conflict: a skunk under the porch, wild turkeys gobbling apples, elk crashing through fences, wolves attacking livestock, even a cougar stalking a child.
Early in Euro-American settlement of the West, nuisance or dangerous wildlife encounters were dealt with by killing the animals. Management has evolved. Today, as much as possible, wildlife biologists and enforcement officers attempt to alter wildlife behavior by nonlethal methods. When the strategies fail, it may become necessary to kill offending animals. The department’s wildlife conflict management has received considerable attention as gray wolves have repopulated our state during the past decade.
Under the traditional wildlife management scheme, wolves were eliminated from Washington 80 years ago. Early this century, wolves began returning to Washington by natural recolonization. Most Washington wolves are part of a healthy population that rapidly proliferated throughout the Northern Rockies from wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. The eastern third of our state is the western edge of their range.
Northern Rockies gray wolves are not endangered and are aggressively managed by neighboring states. Nonlethal tools are important because there’s agreement that conflict avoidance is always best. Other strategies include population caps, eradication of wolves from areas of high potential conflict, and hunting. In these states, wolf coexistence with humans is effective and the wolf population remains healthy.
The Northern Rockies wolf population demonstrates the resilience and fecundity of the species. Since gray wolves returned to Washington, the state’s population has steadily grown despite a substantial known annual mortality, most of which is human-caused including collisions, poaching and conflict eliminations. The proportionate number of intentional wolf removals for conflict in Washington is far smaller than similar killings throughout the rest of its range, even during recovery.
A recent opinion column by the Center for Biological Diversity (“Wolf killing also wastes taxpayer money,” Sept. 14) criticized the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department wolf management as cruel, brisk and brutal. It was also full of accusations against ranchers who are trying to sustain a livelihood in wolf country. It seems crueler to level fraught allegations of malfeasance against passionate professionals devoting their lives to the preservation, protection and perpetuation of the state’s wildlife and to force unscientific anthropomorphic values on rural communities living among wolves.
Gray wolves are generalists, meaning they thrive in a variety of habitats as long as there’s food and minimal human development. Washington has expended considerable resources on their recovery, which is one of the great paradoxes of wildlife species protection. The cost of wolf recovery arises mostly from social concerns. The Center for Biological Diversity piece did not mention that organization’s contributions to the social costs of managing wolves. The biologic aspects of wolf recovery are straightforward. We’ve removed bounty hunting and intentional poisoning that led to their elimination.
Human development and density in our state pose more difficult challenges to preserving biological diversity when it comes to species that rely on specific and fragile habitats. Various sensitive, threatened or endangered invertebrate, burrowing mammal, snake, frog and salamander, fish and bird species receive far less public attention and resources than wolves. Yet their recovery is often more biologically complex and their contributions to ecosystem health are usually essential. You can be sure that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is also paying attention to those species’ needs as well as inadequate resources allow.
Dr. Kim Thorburn is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commissioner. The views in the opinion piece are hers and do not necessarily represent the WDFW Commission or WDFW.
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