Okanogan County takes aim at environmentalist over wolf protection

The state has its own plan for protecting wolves, even as the feds withdraw. Some are furious that an Eastern Washingtonian with environmental credentials has joined the wildlife commission, which recently adopted the plan.

Crosscut archive image.

A gray wolf (December, 2011).

The state has its own plan for protecting wolves, even as the feds withdraw. Some are furious that an Eastern Washingtonian with environmental credentials has joined the wildlife commission, which recently adopted the plan.

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."

Washington's wolf wars didn't end when the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the plan — unanimously — last month.  Before the wolf plan was adopted, Jay Kehne — an Omak resident who has degrees in wildlife biology and soil science — applied online for one of two vacant seats on the Fish and Wildlife Commission. People who knew him sent in letters of recommendation. Shortly after the commissioners voted on the wolf plan, Gov. Chris Gregoire named Kehne to the commission. Then something started hitting the fan.

"GOP seeks to stop Kehne appointment," shouted the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle's lead headline for Dec. 28. "Can Kehne truly represent us?" asks a column by editor and publisher Roger Harnack. The paper notes that Republican county commissioner Andy Lampe, who wrote Kehne a letter of recommendation, withdrew his endorsement. Nevertheless, local Republicans aren't sure they'll back Lampe for re-election.

And now the county commissioners have sent a letter to the chair of the state Senate's Agriculture, Water & Rural Economic Development Committee "absolutely" opposing Kehne's nomination. His appointment could be rejected by the Senate.

What's the fuss about? As the Commission's press release notes, Kehne "had [a] 31-year career with the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, including serving as resource conservation and development coordinator for Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties and providing conservation assistance to farmers, ranchers and other landowners." Not too much to raise the hackles there; what reddens the necks of some local residents is that he also "serves as Okanogan outreach associate for Conservation Northwest." Conservation Northwest advocates protecting wolves. Anyone who advocates protecting wolves is clearly unfit to represent eastern Washington.

"Being employed by an extreme environmentalist group may lead to the downfall of an embattled Jay Kehne in his bid for a seat on the state Fish and Wildlife Commission," explained the Chronicle's lead story. "Conservation Northwest is headed by Mitch Friedman, a Bellingham-based environmental activist and former Earth First member arrested multiple times for civil disobedience," it explains. "'Jay Kehne is bought and paid for by Conservation Northwest,' 7th Legislative District Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said last week.

"According to Kretz, the Republic Party is demanding that Kehne either walk away from the nomination or quit his job."

"With Gov. Gregoire selecting the members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission for the last seven years, it reads like wolf lover's [alumni]," proclaims one letter to the editor. "The commisison has done nothing for big game in Eastern Washington and now, with its wolf plan, has given deer and elk a death sentence."

Another concludes that "last week, a wolf advocate from this area was selected to serve on the state game commission. The wolf really is in the hen house!"

"Jay Kehne stands against my core values and beliefs," writes a third. "If he is appointed to represent Eastern Washington on the state's highest game board, they we have been forsaken."

The Chronicle's characterization of Friedman and his organization contains more than a little irony. Yes, once upon a time, he was an Earth Firster. That was back during the administration of Ronald Reagan. These days, he and Conservation Northwest have been noted — and severely critized — for their efforts to work with ranchers and loggers, to make everybody a winner, to compromise.

The group has even backed the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, which might — in the unlikely event that government funds materialize and opponents fail in the courts — raise the level of Bumping Lake, flooding old-growth forest for which environmentalists started battling in the 1970s. If push really comes to shove, Conservation Northwest is willing to trade the old growth for 10,000 acres of habitat in the Teanaway area plus improved fish passage in the river. Other environmental groups say there should be other ways of securing the habitat and the fish passage, and the old growth is non-negotiable. They basically accuse Friedman and CNW of environnmental sacrilege.

"At an emotional level, you want to say we should never trade another big tree," Friedman concedes. But if you're talking habitat for wolves and other critters, you have to acknowledge that "the Teanaway is like what, 60,000 acres, of which something like 8 to 10,000 is late successional. If that doesn't outweigh 400 acres of big trees ..."

Kehne himself has been working with ranchers on conservation easements and telling people that all the various interest groups should find ways to work together. That hasn't always gotten him far. "Every time I give the 'work together' speech they call me an environmental radical," he says.

Things clearly look different east of Cascade Pass, or at least east of the upper Methow Valley. And, in fact, a self-conscious regional perspective forms part of the rhetoric. We're talking overt culture wars here.

Wolves aren't the whole story. Okanogan County is updating its comprehensive plan. The current version would impose one-acre zoning on virtually all the private land in the county, and would designate wildlife habitat or resource lands only on land owned by the state or federal government. It would make no other accommodations for endangered species. It does not acknowledge the fact that there are already more water rights than water. And, according to outside critics, it violates state law.

In a written comment on the plan's environmental documents, Futurewise, a statewide advocacy group that supports growth management, provides a long list of what it believes are State Environmental Policy Act violations. Futurewise points out, among other things, that "[n]either the surface or ground water sections document whether there is any legally or actually available surface or ground water to support the rural and urban growth allowed by either alternative. Neither section discuss the impacts of this growth, particularly if it uses exempt wells, on senior water rights holders. This is particularly important because a significant number of Okanogan County’s subbasins and streams are already overappropriated."

Some county residents don't like outsiders giving the locals that kind of advice. "Outside groups that despise private property, such as Futurewise, are pumping West side dollars as fast as they can to influence the new Comp Plan process," the Okanogan County Coalition for Property Rights says on its web page. "They want to take more of your property rights. Don't let these outsiders dictate how Okanogan County citizens should use our own land."

Kehne realizes that he gets lumped in with the Western Washington liberals who've come to tell the locals how to live "even though I've lived here 44 years and never lived one day on the West side of the state." He adds, "I am a hunter and I do raise my own livestock here." If he gets to stay on the commission, "I plan to represent all the people of Eastern Washington as best I can."

In the meantime, he realizes that while most state residents say they want wolves, most residents of Okanogan County feel differently. But he doesn't think they should be encouraged to think the Fish and Wildlife Commission will change its mind. The science doesn't leave it much choice. And he's fine with that.

"They consider us the environmental radical group because we talk about the science of wolves rather than just [saying] 'shoot them,' " Kehne says. "I'm not pro or anti," he explains. "I'm for the science."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.