When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took a formal step this week to remove wolves from the endangered species list — 16 years after they were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park — he also removed federal protection for wolves in Washington.
Seattle Times environment reporter
Congressmen from Montana and Idaho attached a rider to the 2011 appropriation package that required the Obama administration to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains.
But the implications extend beyond the intermountain states. Wolves in Washington that live east of state Highway 97 are considered part of the Rocky Mountain wolf population, too.
So when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took a formal step this week to remove wolves from the endangered species list — 16 years after they were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park — he also removed federal protection for wolves in Washington.
Most of them, anyway.
Right now, roughly two dozen wolves in three or so packs are thought to roam the state. As of this week, two breeding groups — known as the Diamond and Salmo packs — in the highlands of northeast Washington in Pend Oreille County and in the Blue Mountains of the state's southeastern corner are no longer protected under federal law.
But in Okanogan County, on the other side of Highway 97, members of a wolf pack that first set up camp in Washington in 2008 — the state's first in 70 years — will still be protected under the ESA. That's because the Methow Valley's Lookout Pack, recently devastated by poachers, is considered part of the country's Northwest wolf population. And federal officials are still trying to track and understand that group of animals.
Technically, we've been here before, though only briefly. In 2009, Salazar declared that the hundreds of wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana were doing well enough that the states could take over management. That decision landed immediately in court and got mired in what he called this week "unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute." A federal judge overturned his delisting decision less than a year later. Congress last month reinstated it.
The action marks the first time an animal has been taken off the endangered species list by an act of Congress.
"What that means is that wolf management goes to state control," said Rocky Beach, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We now are in charge — at least in the eastern third of the state."
While officials in Idaho and Montana have expressed interest in ultimately sanctioning wolf hunts, that's not going to happen in Washington soon, if ever. But it's not yet clear what will happen instead. Washington is still working on a recovery plan that isn't likely to be finalized until later this year.
"Without a state management plan, we lack goals and strategies for what we want for wolves anywhere in this state," said Mitch Friedman, of the environmental group Conservation Northwest.
Early drafts suggest the state won't consider wolves "restored" until there are more than a dozen breeding pairs — very roughly the equivalent of more than a dozen packs.
But cattle ranchers fear the state shouldn't settle on a hoped-for ultimate wolf population until it has done detailed mapping of predators and prey so it's clear how many game animals wolves will kill. They fear that more wolves and not enough deer and elk to feed them boosts the odds that wolves would kill cows and sheep.
"At the end of the day, we have to have a healthy and viable prey base," said Jack Field, of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. "Otherwise, it's a pretty scary concept."
Environmentalists and the state, however, maintain that population goals are essential. And the plan can be altered, through hunting permits or other changes, as circumstances dictate.
Meanwhile, Interior officials this week also suggested they would formally review the historic and current status of wolves in the western two-thirds of the state. That was sought in a lawsuit by cattle ranchers — but also desired by environmental groups. It's the first step to figuring out where the federal government believes wolves should exist.