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.