By Jordie Ricigliano, March 6, 2013
Saving endangered wolves from extinction in the wild is one thing; managing wolf reintroduction into the wild is quite another. In Washington State (USA), a conundrum is brewing between animal activists and conservative property owners over just what to do with the wolves entering the state along its eastern and northern borders.
Wolves were common throughout Washington until the 19th century when trapping, poisoning, and hunting practices became popular. Ranching and farming by European-American settlers catalyzed negative opinions of the wild canids and their occasional tastes for livestock meat. By the 1930s, wolves were no longer considered a breeding species in the state. Despite the loss, Washington took no legal measures to reintroduce wolves into wilderness areas.
Reports of wolves entering into the state on their own via porous borders with Idaho and Canada cropped up in 2005; most involved sightings of single animals. The first fully recognized pack was confirmed in July 2008 in the northeastern corner of the state in the Okanogan and Chelan counties. This year, there are eight confirmed and four suspected wolf packs, numbering between 51 and 100 animals. All roam the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains where residents in respective regions have complained that they bear the burden of the state’s unofficial wolf recovery efforts.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is officially listed as endangered in Washington under state law and protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the western two-thirds of the state (meaning, it is illegal to kill, harm or harass them). Wolves in the eastern third of the state, where they are most common, were removed from federal protection in 2011. While no reintroduction measures have been developed, state and federal wildlife authorities monitor the activity of resident wolves to learn more about their use of habitat and to reduce potential conflicts with humans.
In January 2013, state representative Kretz (R-Wauconda) proposed to divert a portion of the booming wolf population from the east to the west. Lamenting that “the entire citizenship of the state has not been fully able to enjoy the re-establishment of this majestic species,” Kretz put on the legislation table a tongue-in-cheek bill that would move an undetermined number of wolves across the Cascade Mountains to the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands.
“The Legislature finds that the rich habitat created by the land stewardship of Washington’s private landowners has created circumstances that allow the state to enjoy an expanding gray wolf population,” Kretz wrote. “Unfortunately, however, this bounty has been geographically limited to areas in eastern Washington and the entire citizenship of the state has not been fully able to enjoy the reestablishment of this majestic species.”
The ‘enjoyment’ Kretz mentions refers implicitly to the umbrage of managing wolves in a farming-dense region, where livestock tempt hungry canids just as McDonald’s entices children with its golden arches. Not surprisingly, as the wolf population rose in Washington, so did the death toll of domesticated animals. During 2012, wolves killed nine cows and sheep and wounded 15 more. One Stevens County ranch bore the brunt of the impact, losing six cows and seeing 10 more injured. Kretz’s bill urges the western counties to share the burden, as well as the majesty, of Washington wolves.
The bill has not gotten a hearing in the Democrat-led House, but it has received a litany of criticism. “It’s a stupid bill, and it’s a waste of our resources,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker a democrat representative from Orcas Island.
The proposal arises during an already tense period of civil debate in which various political parties wrestle with how to handle wolves that have recolonized the state faster than expected. John Smith (R-Colville) said the growing number of wolves shows that recovery is exceeding expectations. “We must put a plan in place now for wolf population management as recovery targets are reached,” Smith said.
Eastern Washington legislators, who tend to wave a flag of conservatism, have introduced a slew of bills that would give ranchers and local counties more leeway to deal with gray wolves on their own. Senate Bill 5187 and House Bill 1191 would allow livestock owners to shoot and kill wolves that threaten their livestock without first obtaining a permit from the state.
Fiercely opposing such measures, liberal wolf activists mostly from the western half of the state argue that citizen freedoms to shoot and control wolf numbers would only hurt the state’s wolf recovery efforts and contradict years of efforts that have attempted to pull together an official wolf plan.
One of the wolf packs in contestation is the Wedge pack in northeastern Washington. Last summer, the Department of Fish and Wildlife killed most members of that pack to end a series of attacks on an area rancher’s cattle that left at least six calves dead and 10 other animals injured. The decision further highlighted the public’s bipartite sentiments towards wild canids, arousing either criticism or approval depending on who was speaking.
Just a month before the Wedge Pack culling, the Lookout Pack—Washington’s first recognized pack of wolves—appeared in a 90 minute BBC documentary sponsored by the Discovery Channel. The program featured the search for the wolves as well as some of harsh attitudes local landowners hold toward them. Parts of the program even showed how community members in the Methow Valley illegally poached a number of wolves.
For now, wolves are geographically clustered into one corner of the state, while public attitudes towards them are widespread and varied. Kretz’s bill is just one of a handful of proposals introduced in the last few months that takes a stab at determining just how wolves and humans can best co-exist.
“Wolves aren’t angels or devils,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, at a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bills. “They can respond to management techniques.”
Friedman only expounds part of the concern. As Washington continues to become the stomping grounds for wild canids, the question most pressing is not how the wolves respond to management techniques, but rather, how Washingtonians will adapt to the change.