Thursday, June 09, 2011
ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- With wildlife commissioners poised to enact the state's wolf management plan in December, the citizen group helping to craft it remains polarized to the point of being combative.
Six of its 17 members remain "unable to live with" the wolf numbers called for in the draft plan, according to their minority opinion that -- in what one called "one of the worst insults I've ever had" -- was relegated to the final two pages of the 295-page document.
A final plan is expected to be released for public comment in August.
At the panel's two-day work session earlier this week in Ellensburg -- the first meeting in two years in the five-year effort -- members remained sharply divided over the basic issues and couldn't agree on an answer to the most critical question:
How many wolves are enough?
"We've asked this throughout the process. What is the cap?" said Jack Field who, as executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, has been the most outspoken opponent of the wolf numbers called for by the plan.
"(Panelists) talk about the words that are missing in the document, but the two words that are really missing and that nobody's really addressing are population cap. How many wolves are we really talking about here?"
The management plan sets minimum numbers of successful breeding pairs in Washington necessary to justify downgrading wolves from their current listing as endangered throughout the state. Six pairs for three consecutive years would reclassify wolves from state endangered to state threatened; 12 pairs would lower that to state sensitive; and 15 pairs, sufficiently dispersed, would delist the species.
How many wolves that might mean, though, is a loaded question without a concrete answer -- or even a satisfactory estimate.
According to a table in the draft document, 15 documented breeding pairs might -- considering non-breeding pack members, undocumented packs and lone wolves -- translate to as few as 97 wolves throughout the state, or as many as 42 actual packs and more than 360 wolves.
And if the state's wolf numbers continued to expand over the next two years at 24 percent annually -- wolves' population growth rate during the first 13 years of the federal Northern Rocky Mountains wolf restoration effort -- that could mean upwards of 60 packs and 550 wolves before state officials made them legal to hunt.
While the actual number of wolves will likely be far less, there's simply no way to estimate how many there will be, said Harriet Allen, who heads up the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's endangered/threatened species section.
"We aren't going to know what the growth rate is going to be," she said. "It's going to be different in different areas, based on habitat and prey base."
The minority opinion calling for eight breeding pairs before turning wolves into a "big game animal," though, was deemed indefensible by most members of the wolf working group.
"The important thing is that we come away from this process with a management plan that will stand up to a legal challenge," said panelist Arthur Swannack, who lives near Sprague in Eastern Washington and serves as president of the Washington State Sheep Producers. "Eight breeding pairs won't hold up in court."
Panelist Bob Tuck of Selah, a former state wildlife commissioner, said the 15 pairs actually represented a compromise that he "can grudgingly agree and live with," noting that some panelists wanted an even higher threshold.
"If we start backing off that number," Tuck said, "I'm off that wagon for the compromise right now."
The draft plan's 15-pair minimum for delisting represents a significant increase from the federal standards set in the three states (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) in which gray wolves have been reintroduced.
Each of those three states is larger and has more suitable wolf habitat than Washington, and -- with a combined population less than half that of Washington -- would conceivably comprise far less potential for human-wolf encounters.
Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's standard for delisting in each of those three states was 10 breeding pairs -- well under Washington's 15, yet still high enough that the federal plan has been met in those states with lawsuits, political grandstanding and contentious public backlash.
And yet wolf populations in those three states have still risen sufficiently to be removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Besides cattle ranchers, some of the most vociferous opponents in those states have been hunters angry over wolves' predation on big-game species, notably elk and deer.
Tuck said good science, not hunting opportunity, was the management plan's mandate.
"Will there be impacts on ungulates (deer and elk) that certain people hunt? Probably. As a deer and elk hunter, that would be me," Tuck said. "But ecosystems are not vending machines. I don't need to put in my quarter -- ka-chunk -- and have a trophy elk pop out. That's not what this is all about."
But if the state's wolf numbers turn out to be on the higher end of expectations rather than the lower end, the impact on those ungulate herds could be dramatic.
The draft document projects that 300 wolves in Washington would annually consume roughly 3,500 deer and 2,100 elk. That could represent a significant chunk of the available ungulate harvest, considering that Washington hunters take about 8,000 elk annually.
"But it's not as simple as that," said Anthony Novack, a state wildlife biologist who has done extensive field research on wolves in Idaho. "Wolves are very selective. By the nature of how they prey, how they run down animals, they really do cull the weakest ones in the herd. The slow do not survive.
"Of the female elk (wolves) took in Montana, roughly 40 percent were geriatric; they weren't going to be having calves again. So ... wolves have a lesser impact on those elk herd numbers. Hunters have a bigger impact because they take healthy, prime-aged animals."
But the ranchers and other residents of the rural areas most likely to attract wolves from neighboring states -- "the people who are going to be affected," declared Duane Cocking, a panelist critical of the draft plan -- will need to be careful in protecting their pets or livestock from wolves.
Washington state law doesn't allow the killing of state-endangered or protected wildlife by private citizens without a permit. And while state wildlife officials say they'll be quick to issue permits to landowners with an ongoing wolf problem, it will still be a complicated situation.
People won't be able to shoot a wolf that's chasing a pet or a domestic herd animal -- only if it's in the act of attacking or, as Field noted, "when it's got your dog by the throat."
A rancher also can't shoot a wolf that's standing over a livestock animal it has already killed; that's no longer "considered to be in the act of attacking," according to state law.
For that matter, a landowner in the western two-thirds of Washington, where wolves are still federally listed as endangered, couldn't shoot the wolf in any of those circumstances. Federal law allows the killing of an endangered species only in cases of self-defense.
In the heat of the moment, some panelists wondered, would people be able to make the distinction?
"We're talking about an apex predator here," Field said. "We're not talking about a desert tortoise."