They're shooting wolves again in Idaho and Montana, but in Washington we're still trying to figure out how to save them. Gray wolves, hunted to extinction in Washington before World War II, walked back across the borders from British Columbia and Idaho on their own. But if we want them to stick around for future generations, they'll need our forebearance — which the proposed state wolf management plan, currently going through a round of public hearings may — or may not — insure. The state Fish and Wildlife Commission will turn thumbs up or down in December.
Some people think the plan goes too far. Others think it doesn't go far enough.
Five years ago, there was no need for a wolf management plan because — as far as anybody knew — there were no wolves. People had periodically claimed to see or hear them, and finding tracks in the mud beside Ross Lake became an annual event, but there was no evidence that a pack had established itself within the state. Then, in 2008, biologists identified the Lookout Pack, breeding in the Methow Valley. By now — with two new packs identified earlier this year — there are five.
"As of July 2011, there were five confirmed packs in Washington," the management plan explains: "two in Pend Oreille County; one in Stevens/Pend Oreille counties; one in Kittitas County; and one in Okanogan/Chelan counties. Only one of these, in Pend Oreille County, was a successful breeding pair in 2010. There were also indications of single additional packs in the Blue Mountains and North Cascades National Park; and at least a few solitary wolves are also likely to occur in other scattered locations of Washington. Human-related mortality, particularly illegal killing and legal control actions to resolve conflicts, is the largest source of mortality for the species in the northwestern United States and illegal killing has already been documented in Washington."
When the state planning process started, gray wolves were protected as a federally listed species throughout the West. The government initially tried to delist all wolves in the northern Rockies, including the main populations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. All three states had drawn up management plans. Wyoming's was clearly inadequate, so conservationists got an injunction against delisting. The Wyoming government subsequently asked for and received a voluntary remand, so that it could revise the proposal.
In 2009, the feds tried again. They left Wyoming's wolf population on the list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an order delisting gray wolves in Idaho and Montana, plus eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Utah. Last year, U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy vacated the order, saying it violated the Endangered Species Act. He didn't reach the substantive issues that the plaintiffs had raised about the criteria for wolf recovery, but he didn't have to. The feds couldn't delist a population in only part of its range. “The record in this case implies that the Service tried to find a pragmatic solution to the legal problem raised by the inadequacy of Wyoming's regulatory mechanisms,” Molloy wrote. However, he added, “[e]ven if the Service's solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA.”
The losing side appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit. Politicians pandering to anti-wolf sentiment weren't willing to entrust the issue to the courts. No one expected a decision before next year, but delisting bills started popping up in Congress last year. This year, the delisting movement gathered steam. The plaintiff groups that had won in Molloy's court could see a legislative solution coming down the tracks, and many of them tried to avoid it through a negotiated settlement. Ten of the fourteen plaintiffs signed onto a settlement that basically suspended Molloy's order in Idaho and Montana. They hoped to avoid the precedent of a Congressional delisting, and hoped to salvage protection for wolves in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Utah.
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