Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Numbers key to debate on state's wolf management plan

By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald-Republic

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- As expected, many of the public commenters who jammed an Ellensburg hotel conference room for Monday's wolf management hearing sounded less than excited about the prospect of having a growing number of wolves in their midst.
As it turned out, so did some of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission members to whom they were appealing.
"I still have a hard time understanding that we have seven times the population and perhaps a third to a fourth the habitat as Montana, yet we have the same (wolf recovery) objectives they do," said commission vice-chairman Gary Douvia of Kettle Falls. "I have a hard time understanding how we're going to be successful with those odds."
Some commissioners seemed focused on the fact that the scientific modeling data collected from Idaho and Montana considered the presence of sheep, but not cattle -- a far bigger industry in Washington, and a possible target for depredation should the wild prey base not keep pace with the growing number of wolves.
"It surprises me," Douvia said, "that we have sheep-predictability numbers but we don't have cattle, seeing as how we've got 50,000 to 60,000 sheep (in Washington) and more than a million cattle."
"Why don't you add cattle and rerun the model?," Bainbridge Island commissioner Conrad Mahnken asked Department of Fish and Wildlife representatives.
Nate Pamplin, the assistant director for the state's wildlife program in the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that would be "an interesting modeling exercise," but wouldn't be helpful since cattle-producing operations in Idaho and Montana were small enough so as not to be a significant variable.
"How do you know," Mahnken retorted, "if you don't run the model?"
The commission's grilling of Fish and Wildlife staffers took up much of Monday's meeting, clearly disappointing many of the nearly 100 people who crowded the room in hopes of getting their three minutes each.
There will be two more public hearings before the wildlife commission is expected to act on a final version in December.
Although one woman at the meeting wore a T-shirt that read, "Little Red Riding Hood Lied," the vast majority of the four dozen commenters argued that the proposed plan's standard of 15 successful breeding pairs was too high and would impact wolves' prey populations, particularly deer and elk, popular targets for hunters. Those concerns echoed that of commissioner Chuck Perry of Moses Lake, who noted, "We're going to have a hard time maintaining our prey base."
The 15 pairs required in the plan could represent anywhere from 97 to 361 wolves. It is unknown how many wolves make up Washington's five existing packs. Before the Teanaway pack was discovered earlier this year, state officials estimated the population of three packs at about 25 wolves.
According to the plan, that 15-pair number will have to be maintained for three consecutive years before the state could begin the process of delisting wolves and take advantage of other "management tools," such as hunting.
"Failure to eliminate the three-year period," warned Lee Davis of Kittitas Field and Stream, "will double the wolf population."
Active management can't come soon enough for people like Ellensburg cattle rancher Sam Kayser. Two of his employees got one of the first public looks at the Teanaway pack back in mid-July, barely two months after remote camera photographs and DNA evidence had confirmed their presence.
The crew members were moving cattle in a large grazing allotment Kayser leases on private land in a relatively densely populated area of the Teanaway, a rural, hilly area north of Cle Elum, when they saw a doe race across the road in front of them.
"They said they'd never seen a deer running so fast, so their antenna went up a little bit," Kayser said. "And then three wolves came galloping across. They said there's no mistaking those wolves for a coyote -- these were big and they were scary looking. And they were in no hurry: They were just going to wear (the deer) down."
Teanaway Valley property owner Bill Holmes said he's seen the wolves "hunting in my backyard."
Holmes compared the three-year minimum wait before delisting wolves to having to put all of his belongings on a picnic table, knowing that gangs of criminals were eying them.
"Only we've got to wait until there are 10 more gangs looking at them before we can do anything about it," he said.
Kayser said he had presumed the first sighting in this part of the state would probably be in the Alpine Wilderness, far from human residences.
"This is down where people live, about a quarter-mile from 30 to 40 houses," Kayser said. "This is not what anybody counted on."
Don Jackson, a rancher in the Blue Mountains, said he'd lived there for several decades with no wolves and now, he said, he suddenly finds himself in prime wolf territory.
"I'm not encroaching on the wolf's habitat," he said. "He's encroaching on mine."

* Material from The Associated Press and the Yakima Herald-Republic archives was included in this report.