A lot of people have eagerly tracked the progress of a gray wolf (known as OR7) that has traveled more than 800 miles from the Wallowas to the Crater Lake region and then, right after Christmas, into northern California — where it became the Golden State's first gray wolf since 1924. Many have also applauded the appearances of new packs in Washington — where, this summer, Washington biologists identified packs in the Teanaway drainage, east of Seattle, and up in Stevens County.
But not everyone welcomes the prospect of a wolf pack in the neighborhood. Take a look at Okanogan County. Or ask Jay Kehne, whose appointment to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission is under fire from some in Okanogan County, where he lives.
Gray wolves were, of course, extirpated from the western United States by the end of World War II. They became charter members of the endangered species list. In 1995, they were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park. Since then, they have also walked across the Canadian border.
By this time, there are perhaps 1,600 in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Those states were eager to get wolves off the endangered species list. The Interior Department tried in 2008, and again in 2009 to "de-list" them from protection in Idaho and Montana. Both delistings were shot down by a federal court.
Last spring, in a rider to the legislation that kept the government paying its bills for the rest of the last fiscal year, Congress ordered the secretary of the interior to re-issue the 2009 deslisting rule — and insulated it from judicial review. Hunting seasons for gray wolves opened in Idaho and Montana late last summer.
The Congressional wolf delisting didn't cover the entire West. In Washington, it extends only as far west as Route 97, which runs along the Okanogan River through Omak and Tonasket. West of that line, wolves still have federal protection. And even east of the line, they are protected by the state, which has also listed wolves as an endangered species.
The state started working on a gray wolf management plan in 2007, when federal delisting first looked like an idea whose time was coming soon. A final draft plan came out last July. Within weeks, the Okanogan County commissioners passed a resolution asking the state to take wolves off Washington's endangered species list. Last October, the director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife declined. On Dec. 3, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to approve the final plan.
Under the new plan, "recovery" will be achieved when the state has 15 breeding pairs distributed among three recovery areas. (Fifteen breeding pairs means anywhere from 97 to 365 wolves.) Ranchers will get compensated for any known or probable wolf kills. For a known kill, they'll get double the dead animal's market value.
The plan was a compromise. It is a document on which people representing a range of interest groups — including the state farm bureau — have signed off.
There's something to be said for consensus. Of course, not every last potential opponent was at the table, and some people think even 15 breeding pairs would be too many. Like opponents in other parts of the West, those critics worry that wolves will kill or harass livestock (or at least make them wary, which may take their minds off eating enough to slow their weight gain) and kill or harass elk (or at least make them wary, too, which may make them harder to shoot). Some hunters worry that wolves will actually destroy or seriously deplete elk populations.
Experience elsewhere suggests that except for very localized effects on populations already in trouble, those fears are largely fantasy. "The effects that wolves will have on elk, deer, and other ungulate populations and hunter harvest are difficult to predict," the plan says, "but observations from neighboring states suggest that statewide effects will be low, especially during recovery phases."
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