Thursday, January 31, 2013

The WA Legislature vs. Wolves


There are a handful of bills floating around Olympia this session relating to the gray wolf and the problems the reintroduction of these animals have caused for ranchers and livestock owners in our state - particularly in Eastern Washington. And two of the bills - SB 5187 and SB 5188, both sponsored by Sen. John Smith (R-Colville) - have generated concerns from Conservation Northwest, a group that works to protect area wildlife and forests.
In testimony heard Tuesday in the state Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, invested parties were able to sound off on Sen. Smith's two pieces of proposed legislation - which would both give ranchers and lawmakers more leeway to kill wolves that threaten livestock.

Specifically, SB 5187 would give livestock owners and their employees the right kill what's termed "mammalian predators" if their livestock is attacked - without permission from anyone. Similarly, SB 5188 would allow county law enforcement officials to kill wolves who pose an imminent threat to livestock, provided some conditions are met: the occurrence of two attacks on livestock by a wolf pack, or if a pattern of attacks against a livestock operation exists.

"We are looking to defend our God-given right to defend our property," Sen. Smith told the committee Tuesday. "The intention is not to declare open season on wolves."

However, these words (and the nod to God) aren't enough to alleviate the concerns of Conservation Northwest. The group has come out against both bills, which, if passed, would work directly against the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan adopted by the state in 2011. The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan - which was modeled after similar efforts in Montana and Idaho - aims to (among other things) restore the wolf population in Washington, minimize conflicts with livestock, and ensure that wolves can repopulate Washington enough to do what they're supposed to do in the state's ecosystem.

"The only way to alleviate [the problems caused by wolves] is to find common ground and begin implementing effective non-lethal solutions upfront that have been proven to work elsewhere, not waste time in the legislature throwing bombs at the wolf plan," says Conservation Northwest's Kit McGurn of the bills proposed by Sen. Smith.

According to Conservation Northwest there are currently as many as 12 confirmed and unconfirmed wolf packs roaming Washington, with state wildlife officials and biologists estimating there are between 50 and 100 wolves currently calling the state home. This comes after a 70-year absence of wolves in Washington.

On its website, Conservation Northwest comes out strongly against SB 5187 and SB 5188.
Of SB 5187 the agency opines:
This bill contradicts the carefully crafted, balanced wolf conservation and management and would harm recovery in the state. Furthermore, the language is sloppy and would allow any livestock owner to kill a wolf without a permit, even if the wolf was not attacking cattle.
And of SB 5188 Conservation Northwest contends:
Oppose this bill with vigor! This plan would take wildlife management out of the hands of the Department of Fish and Wildlife and allow county sheriffs, who are not trained in wildlife biology and management, to manage wolves. This bill is a major affront to Washington's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.
"Conservation Northwest believes wholeheartedly there is a middle ground in the wolf issue whether it's in the politics of wolf recovery or finding non-lethal solutions that work for those most directly affected by wolves returning to the state," McGurn says when asked if her organization has empathy for the plight of livestock owners. "Everything we've said and done over the past few years supports our efforts to find this middle ground."

As evidence of this work, McGurn cites things like a workshop Conservation Northwest offered in Colville early last year that offered cattlemen "a cost-free opportunity to learn from people experienced with ranching around wolves."

Meanwhile on the wolf-related legislation front, a bill filed by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) has also drawn strong opposition from Conservation Northwest. Kretz's HB 1258 would literally relocate wolves from Eastern Washington to Western Washington, where the state representative says these beasts would be closer to their supporters. Of this effort, Conservation Northwest says on its website: "Translocation is an important tool for wolf recovery and should be taken seriously and this bill doesn't do it justice."

All of this is not to say all the wolf-related legislation circulating Olympia has drawn the Conservation Northwest's ire. For instance, the organization supports SB 5079, an effort sponsored by state Sen. Pam Roach, that would create a dedicated fund for compensation for livestock damage caused by wolves, and has also come out in favor of SB 5299, which would create a special Washington wolf license plate, with proceeds going to fund wolf recovery and conflict prevention.