As clashes between wolves and cattle continue this fall, the discovery of six poisoned wolves in Stevens County and the hearing of arguments that could end grazing in the Colville National Forest by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have created another complication in an already difficult situation managing growing wolf populations.
Depredations continue to be confirmed in Stevens County, putting the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in conflict with environmental activists if they issue kill orders for additional animals and with livestock owners if they do not.
The issue of gray wolf-livestock interaction continues to fester, in large part, because two-thirds of Washington state’s established gray wolf packs live in Northeastern Washington and seem disinclined to relocate on their own.
According to the most recent report from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are “at least 206 known wolves in 33 known packs including at least 19 breeding pairs” in our state. This is particularly important because Washington’s gray wolf population has grown tremendously since 2008. WDFW reports an average population growth of 28 percent every year for more than a decade.
The poisoning of six gray wolves in Stevens County could be a problem for farmers and ranchers following the rules by using all the non-lethal deterrents authorized by WDFW. Farmers and ranchers are allowed to shoot gray wolves caught in the act of depredation and can report it without fear of prosecution. However, wolves are notoriously difficult to catch “in-the-act.”
For the three-judge appeals court panel in Portland, it may also reinforce the arguments made by WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and Kettle Range Conservation Group in their claim appeals court argument that when “non-lethal deterrents fail, allotments should be declared unsuitable for grazing” because of the increased interactions between livestock owners and wolves.
The shortest route to a resolution is to declare gray wolves recovered in at least the Eastern third of our state and begin developing a management program that allows for responsible species growth while giving farmers and ranchers most effected by wolves the ability to protect their livelihood.
Statements from activist groups would have the public believe gray wolf recovery in our state is in grave danger. The Center for Biological Diversity wrote, “With the unbridled wolf slaughter occurring just east of us, the need for strong rules that work to lessen conflict is more vital now than ever.” This is ridiculous and inaccurate hyperbole. In fact, WDFW has only removed two wolves this year involved in depredations and the total population is, again, likely to increase significantly.
If the state continues to turn a blind eye to the problem of predator management, gray wolves will continue to run afoul of farmers and ranchers desperate to save their livestock. Bridging the divide between ranchers and apex predators may be as simple as allowing livestock producers the freedom to protect their livelihood by issuing annual hunting tags for wolves, as the Colville Confederated Tribes currently do, and allowing packs that are not troubling livestock to continue to live off the land.
Pam Lewison is the director of the initiative on agriculture at the Washington Policy Center.