It should be cause for celebration, or at least a pause to marvel at the incredible resilience of nature. As I sit at this keyboard, there is a confirmed gray wolf pack no more than six miles away, just over the south hills. Think of it. We live in an officially recognized, populous metropolitan area, and there are wolves within walking distance.
It’s incredible. After long-ago methodical lupicide — deliberate elimination of the species — and their absence for the better part of a century, the wolves are not far from the door. It happened faster than anyone imagined. Five years’ distant from the state’s first confirmed wolf pack in generations, there now are 10 and more suspected. The state’s wolf population doubled in a year. A species once vanished has returned, thriving and very nearly self-sustaining. Our laws protecting endangered species can work. We should be glad. Part of me is.
Plan no welcome-to-Wenatchee parties. Based on the experience and testimony of our neighbors to the north and east, who live surrounded, you can welcome wolves but dread the fallout. There will be inevitable conflicts, complaints, damaged livelihoods and property, recrimination, accusation, and some genuine fear. Wolves look better from a distance.
The protectors and admirers of wolves, those who wish them to spread and repopulate a land where they were once numerous, should take heed. Wolves can still lose the public relations battle. Washington is not remote. It is a populous, industrious state, where wolves and humans must coexist. Don’t dismiss the complaints of those who must live near wolves. Don’t assume they are just ignorant people who can’t cope with the wild world, people less important than the creatures you want the law to protect. Don’t do that, for there will be a backlash.
You could see it build in Olympia this week. The state House took testimony on a simple bill that would allow people to shoot and kill a gray wolf attacking their livestock or pets. The gray wolf is listed as endangered by state law. Currently, if a rancher finds a wolf attacking livestock, or a homeowner finds a wolf consuming a pet, they can take no action without a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Of course, permits come too late. People who take unauthorized action in defense of their property can face serious criminal charges.
This bill is not opposed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. It poses no threat to wolf recovery. The circumstance where wolf killing is allowed will surely be rare. There will be no mass wolf slaughter.
But the measure carries important significance in wolf country. You could hear the emotion in the testimony. “This is a very personal thing,” said Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, a small rancher and sponsor of SB 5187. “We are talking about the security of my family and my livelihood.”
Commissioners in the state’s four northeast counties told legislators that wolf-human conflict is so frequent, and the potential so frightening, that they will not wait for Olympia to act. They said they will declare an emergency and take matters into their own hands. “We cannot wait any longer. We have a responsibility to our citizens,” said Stevens County Commissioner West McCart.
The bill has passed the Senate but meets opposition in the House. Environmentalists say the ranchers need to adapt, not the law. They may use this new law as a pretext to kill wolves unnecessarily.
So, tell people they cannot protect their property without permission. They need to get smart, the wildlife defenders say. The must adapt, be wise, be patient, be tolerant. It’s always been a sad part of the endangered species battles that so few people realize how condescending that sounds.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.