Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Once studied closely, moving wolves to Olympic Peninsula unlikely now

Don JenkinsCapital Press

John and Karen Hollingsworth/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A gray wolf is seen in this file photo.
An Eastern Washington lawmaker made a tongue in cheek proposal to move wolves west of the Cascades. But more than a decade ago, U.S. Fish and Wildlife seriously studied relocation at the insistence of a governor and westside congressman.

An Eastern Washington legislator’s bill to move wolves west of the Cascades was shelved earlier this year. But 15 years ago, releasing wolves on the Olympic Peninsula was seriously studied at the request of a governor and westside congressman.

The study concluded wolves would thrive on elk and deer in Olympic National Park, but they would eventually travel outside the park and into nearby small towns. “It would be a political nightmare,” the study’s lead author, retired University of Idaho professor John Ratti, said in an interview Oct. 29.

Recent meetings held by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reaffirmed an east-west rift in attitudes toward the state’s expanding wolf population.

In Stevens County, where several packs live, state wildlife managers were accused of letting predatory wolves run free. A week later in Lynnwood, a Seattle suburb far from any wolf, managers
were accused of wantonly killing a wolf.

Taking note of the east-west divide, state Rep. Joel Kretz, whose district includes Stevens County, introduced a bill in 2013 calling on the entire state to “enjoy” the “ecological benefits” of having “apex predators” in their midst.

The chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Aberdeen Democrat Brian Blake, didn’t give the satirical bill a hearing in 2013 or 2014, though he said this week he agreed with the sentiment. “In my personal opinion, the people of north-central Washington have been more than cooperative and patient over the impact of the wolves,” he said. “I find some of the folks blaming the ranchers and the communities a little disingenuous. They’re not living with the impacts.”
So far, the state’s fledgling wolf population has largely been confined to northeast and north-central Washington.

But more than two decades ago, then-Gov. Booth Gardner proposed wolf recovery start on the Olympic Peninsula. After Gardner left office, then-U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who represented the peninsula, got the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to authorize a study.

Olympics ideal
The agency contracted with the University of Idaho and the Idaho Cooperative Research Unit.
Researchers concluded wolves would be a moderate threat to deer and elk, particularly isolated elk herds hemmed in by snow in the winter.

Ratti said in an interview the park would provide better conditions for wolves than Eastern Washington. “The Olympic park is without question in my mind the only good, good, excellent habitat for wolves in Washington,” he said.

The report also concluded wolves would be a minimal threat to livestock and pets, and a negligible threat to humans. Nevertheless, the authors cautioned that releasing wolves on the peninsula “may not be prudent.”

 “The government made the decision not to precede with the introduction of wolves into the Olympic National Park ... which is sort of what I recommended,” Ratti said. Wolves venturing from the park would find cows, donkeys, sheep, dogs and cats, he said. “Wolves coming out of Olympic National Park would have a heyday.”

Washington’s recovery plan carves the state into three regions and requires at least four breeding pairs in each region. The way the boundaries are drawn, no wolf would have to venture west of Wenatchee or Yakima for recovery to be judged a success. “That doesn’t seem at all fair to me,” Kretz said.

Ratti said it’s a “pipe dream” to think wolves can be accepted in populated areas. “All I can say is ‘good luck,’” he said. “Personally, I’m pro-wolves. I wish we had a wider distribution of wolves, a wider distribution of grizzly bears. But again, you would have conflicts with livestock and people.”

The state’s wolf recovery plan holds out the possibility of transferring wolves to relieve overcrowding in one region and hasten recovery in another. So far, the state has let wolves spread on their own.

Migration, not relocation
An Olympic Peninsula legislator, Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said he wasn’t opposed to wolves migrating onto the peninsula, but doesn’t want them relocated there. “If they came out of the mountains, I would be concerned interaction with people would be pretty quick,” he said.

Wolves were hunted to extinction on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s. The Clallam County Auditor’s Office paid out 46 wolf bounties between 1906 and 1929, according to Ratti’s report.
If wolves ever reach the peninsula again, the reaction would be “divisive and upsetting,” Van De Wege said. Outdoorsman and timber-industry workers would be concerned, he predicted, but others, especially transplants who retired to the peninsula would welcome wolves. “They want nature to be nature, functionally normal. Part of that is having wolves involved, he said. “I guarantee there are people in Eastern Washington who love having wolves there, and people in Western Washington who will hate having wolves here.”

Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman said relocating wolves to the south Cascades to speed up recovery might be a good idea, but a bill proposing it would die politically.
“I don’t think it would go anywhere. We would support it,” he said.

Blake, who says the recovery plan allows for too many breeding pairs, said he opposes relocating wolves. “The folks I talk to don’t want them on the Olympic Peninsula. They don’t want them in the Willapa Hills, either,” he said.

Even though his relocation bill never got a hearing, Kretz said he thought it accomplished something.
“It highlighted the hypocrisy of the legislators who are really pro-wolf,” he said. “They love the wolves as long as they’re in my district, but they don’t want them in their districts. To me, that undercuts their credibility.”

Kretz’s district includes Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties and portions of Okanagon and Spokane counties. He said the district has enough wolves for the entire state. In the upcoming legislative session, he said he will probably reintroduce the bill to relocate some wolves west of the Cascades and “share the love.”