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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State wildlife commission debates wolf rule in charged meeting

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2020 to draft new rules governing the killing of wolves involved in conflicts with livestock.  (Gary Kramer/AP)

In a sometimes heated meeting Washington wildlife managers continued to debate last week whether or not to implement new wolf-livestock rules.

While the commissioners won’t vote on the proposed rule until July 8, based on comments during the Friday meeting it appears the appointed body has little appetite for the new rule which stems from a letter Gov. Inslee sent the agency in 2019, demanding the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife kill fewer wolves.

“I’m sitting over here celebrating because we are down to very few wolves being killed and very few cattle being killed and now we are going to penalize the amazing people who have been working on this,” Commissioner Molly Linville said during the recorded meeting.

Linville and others referenced the work the commission and stakeholders did in the early days of wolf recovery in Washington through the Wolf Advisory group, which included professional mediation between ranchers, environmentalists and other groups.

“Shame on us for not recognizing the win,” Linville said. “We are winning.”

The Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting grew heated at points, particularly during a back-and-forth between Commissioner Melanie Rowland and WDFW wolf policy lead Julia Smith. Rowland, who was one of two commissioners who advocated for the rule, questioned the science behind killing wolves, referencing studies that indicate killing a wolf disturbs pack dynamics and can lead to more attacks on livestock.

Smith responded by noting that “there is a body of science on lethal removal showing it is effective. Not long term. Not forever. No tool is effective forever.”

She added that although WDFW is a proponent of range riding, there is “no published science” on the technique.

“It’s not always about the best available science,” Smith said. “It’s about let’s try things out and see what we can do and try to build that body of science. The science is so difficult to collect.”

Rowland responded to that by saying, “I would require a bit more science to support the idea of the state killing a species that has been listed as endangered.”

Smith briefly walked out of the meeting. WDFW Director Kelly Susewind addressed the commission saying, “It feels like commissioners are attacking staff.”

Later, Smith returned, telling the commission “I am a wolf and wildlife advocate. That’s why I stand before you. This issue is near and dear to my heart. That’s why I get emotional.”

The rule proposes that before WDFW could kill wolves that attacked livestock, agency staff would need to confirm that livestock owners had implemented appropriate nonlethal deterrents. The proposal would also create Chronic Conflict Zones within the state.

These zones would have area-specific criteria for the use of nonlethal and lethal measures.

The proposed rules do not explicitly state which nonlethal measures are considered appropriate. Chronic conflict zones would have more detailed conflict management plans.

Much of the proposed rule, aside from the Chronic Conflict Zones, is already WDFW policy - a fact Commissioner John Lehmkuhl pointed out.

Linville, however, said implementing a new rule would anger ranchers and others who are living near wolves.

“My point is the optics of it are you have to create a rule because people aren’t doing the good behavior,” she said.

In addition to Rowland, Commissioner Lorna Smith also expressed support for the rule.

Commissioner Kim Thorburn, from Spokane, said she didn’t support the rule.

“I’m not sure what killing too many wolves means. Our goal with wolves is to recover them and they seem to be recovering fine with the way we mange the livestock conflict,” she said.

In May, Conservation Northwest published an article stating that Washington is the “best place to live if you are a wolf in the western United States.” The article, which analyzes wolf-death data from Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon, showed that Washington had “an average intentional human-caused mortality rate of 3.8%” which is well below Idaho’s 35.5% human-caused death, or Montana’s 23%.

“It kind of bugs me,” Thorburn said. “I work in other species and diversity. And they’re doing it on a shoestring. And their recovery is often a lot more challenging than wolf recovery has been. It just seems a little bit inequitable.”