A con­tro­ver­sial and divi­sive fig­ure is rear­ing its scruffy head in Wash­ing­ton. Absent from our state for at least sev­en­ty years, the wolf is mak­ing a vig­or­ous come­back. And while Native Amer­i­cans hon­or it in sto­ry, ani­mal lovers appre­ci­ate its eco­log­i­cal role (not to men­tion its fam­i­ly loy­al­ty and intel­li­gence), many ranch­ers dis­trust it because it preys on livestock.

It’s sat­is­fy­ing to have an emblem of the wild like the wolf liv­ing in our state, but its return has led to ten­sions between rur­al res­i­dents and nature lovers.

Suc­cess­ful wolf rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams in Ida­ho and Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park (in the north­west cor­ner of Wyoming) in the 1990s allowed wolves to mul­ti­ply and to even­tu­al­ly regain a foothold in East­ern Washington.

Wolves and humans in the state were get­ting along fair­ly well until this past July when Stevens County’s “Wedge” pack was accused of killing a large num­ber of cat­tle. This prompt­ed the state to kill one wolf, and after more cat­tle were attacked, to con­sid­er killing up to four more wolves in order to dis­rupt the pack.

On the oth­er side of the wolf debate are wolf advo­cates who think it’s too risky to elim­i­nate more wolves right now.  Sev­en advo­cate groups are protest­ing this action and are press­ing Gov­er­nor Chris Gre­goire to spare the ani­mals’ lives.

In a let­ter dat­ed Fri­day, the groups said Wash­ing­ton Fish and Wildlife Depart­ment offi­cers did not find con­clu­sive evi­dence that wolves were respon­si­ble for killing and injur­ing Dia­mond M Ranch cat­tle, so no more wolves should be killed.

In typ­i­cal fash­ion, ranch­ers and wildlife advo­cates are start­ing to butt heads over how best to man­age the wolf. Live­stock depre­da­tion is the same issue that led to the wolves’ forced erad­i­ca­tion from Wash­ing­ton in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. If we are going to keep wolves in our wild lands, we need to find a solu­tion that works for everyone.

While wolves are list­ed under the Fed­er­al Endan­gered Species Act in the west­ern two-thirds of the state, they are only under state con­trol in the oth­er third, and the state’s new wolf man­age­ment plan allows wolves to be culled if they kill live­stock. While this may seem harsh for an endan­gered ani­mal, the state con­sid­ers wolves to be dif­fer­ent than oth­er list­ed animals.

Unlike many oth­er list­ed species that may require habi­tat pro­tec­tions in addi­tion to “take” restric­tions, wolves are resilient and pro­lif­ic gen­er­al­ists that can thrive in many suit­able habi­tat types, assum­ing suf­fi­cient prey, and social tolerance.

Wolf depre­da­tion takes a toll on ranch­ers’ prof­its, and while some ranch­ers would like all wolves to be erad­i­cat­ed, oth­er ranch­ers think that cat­tle and wolves can coex­ist. Ida­ho and Mon­tana have been hav­ing some success.

Fif­teen years ago, Mon­tana faced the same wolf prob­lems as Wash­ing­ton, and by using cre­ative solu­tions wildlife groups were able to dra­mat­i­cal­ly decrease wolf-cat­tle pre­da­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the Wash­ing­ton Fish and Wildlife Depart­ment has suf­fered years of resource-deplet­ing bud­get cuts which lim­it its man­age­ment options. Hope­ful­ly, wildlife groups can help fill the gap.

But many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions are pinch­ing pen­nies, too. Peo­ple for Puget Sound just announced it is fold­ing itself into the Wash­ing­ton Envi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil due to dif­fi­cul­ties rais­ing money.

Under­stand­ing how cru­cial the public’s per­cep­tion of the wolf is to its sur­vival, a top pri­or­i­ty for Wash­ing­ton’s wildlife depart­ment is build­ing coop­er­a­tive rela­tion­ships with stake­hold­ers such as ranch­ers, hunters and rur­al res­i­dents, in order to build trust and sup­port for their man­age­ment meth­ods. Coop­er­a­tion will be key to grow­ing and main­tain­ing a healthy wolf population.

Wash­ing­ton is new to wolf man­age­ment and the state is feel­ing its way along. While our wolf pop­u­la­tion is expand­ing — up to eight con­firmed packs and a pos­si­ble four more — it’s still frag­ile and killing any wolves will have an impact on the population’s health. It’s impor­tant that Wash­ing­ton devel­op sys­tems and a cul­ture that allow wolves to take their right­ful place in the nat­ur­al ecosys­tem, while at the same time pro­tect livestock.

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