OLYMPIA — The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission on Saturday approved a proposed plan for managing gray wolves, a decision sure to spark criticism from hunting and livestock groups that complained it calls for too many of the predators.
Members of the commission called the plan a good compromise that will keep wolf management in the hands of state officials, instead of the federal government. They emphasized on Saturday that the management of wolves in Washington was a work in progress and that the plan was merely a guide for future action.
Commission Chair Miranda Wecker said the panel shouldn’t overemphasize the importance of the management plan.
“What matters most is how we react to wolves on the ground,” she said.
Wecker said the plan is important, however, because it establishes Washington state as the authority over what happens to wolves and other wildlife in the state, instead of the federal government.
“As long as we have no plan, we are extremely limited in our management authority,” she said before the vote was taken. The chairwoman said this understanding is what pushed her to vote for it after feeling very conflicted in the days before Saturday’s hearing.
State wildlife officials have been working since 2007 to determine how best to recover wolves in their historic territory and ultimately delist them from endangered species protections, while reducing and managing wolf conflicts with livestock and humans.
Wolves migrated to Washington from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia, though they are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and as endangered in the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.
Currently, five wolf packs have been documented in the state, all in Eastern Washington. Three reside in the northeast corner, one is in the Methow Valley and the fifth is in the Teanaway Valley of Kittitas County. Wolves have been sighted in southeast Washington’s Blue Mountains, where they are believed to be crossing between Washington and Oregon.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife released the proposal this past summer. Some 65,000 written comments were submitted, ranging from advocates who say wolves play a vital role in the ecosystem to hunters and ranchers who fear they will eat too many elk, deer and livestock. Nineteen meetings were held to gather public comments.
Ultimately, a 17-member citizen advisory group was unable to unanimously agree on the proposal despite months of discussion. Critics, including hunting and livestock groups, argued the plan simply calls for too many wolves, although the Washington Farm Bureau and Washington State Sheep Producers signed off on the proposal.
Derrick Knowles, an avid hunter who works for wildlife group Conservation Northwest, participated as a member of the wolf working group and congratulated the commission on the plan. “While it isn’t any one special interest group’s perfect plan, it’s the right plan for Washington and I applaud the Fish and Wildlife Commission for their leadership today,” Knowles said in a statement.
Jack Field, executive director of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association said he had hoped the commission would vote on Saturday to delay their decision until after the federal government finished its current study — called a status review — of Washington’s wolf population.
“I’m quite concerned and don’t think the department and the commission have all the information needed to make an educated decision on this,” Field said.
Field was not only worried about livestock; he also expressed concern about the state’s deer and elk populations. That concern was echoed by some members of the commission.
Under the plan, 15 successful breeding pairs would be required for three consecutive years to remove endangered species protections. Four breeding pairs would be required in Eastern Washington, the North Cascades and the South Cascades or Northwest Coast, as well as three other pairs anywhere in the state.
There are provisions for killing wolves under certain circumstances when they prey on livestock or deer and elk populations.
The commission would allow WDFW to initiate action to delist gray wolves if 18 breeding pairs were documented in a single year.
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation opposed the proposed numbers, saying the predators could reduce elk and deer herds that tribal members rely on for subsistence hunting.
Gray wolves were eliminated as a breeding species in Washington by the 1930s, and efforts to save them have been controversial throughout the West in recent years.
Earlier this year, Congress stripped federal endangered species protections from wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and the eastern one-thirds of both Washington and Oregon. Wolves remained under federal protection in the western two-thirds of those two states.