Wolves: The hopes and dangers ahead

A species has come back a long way. But are political forces gunning to stop the gains before wolf populations reach a sustainable level?
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A gray wolf in trees

A species has come back a long way. But are political forces gunning to stop the gains before wolf populations reach a sustainable level?

If a Washington gray wolf were really alpha, he might spend less time chasing elk and more time reading maps: West of Highway 97, which runs near Omak, Wenatchee and Yakima as it goes from Canada to the Oregon border, he's protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Anyone who shoots him could be prosecuted by the feds. East of Highway 97, he's protected by the state; anyone who shoots him could be prosecuted under state law.

Beyond the Idaho border, he's not protected at all: Anyone who can pony up $12.75 for a license and $11.50 per tag is welcome to shoot him and up to four of his best friends.

The federal protection he still enjoys on the west side of Highway 97 may soon disappear. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting gray wolves; if the agency decides to go ahead, that Endangered Species Act protection will disappear.

Even some of gray wolves' two-legged supporters, including (nominally or actually, depending on your point of view) the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, think that an end to federal listing is appropriate.

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Copyright: Google Maps (Interactive version here)

At the same time, in much of the West, the politics of wolf protection — or wolf slaughter, depending on your point of view — remain contentious.

To understand where the wolf is today, it's important to recap. Gray wolves were hunted (and trapped and poisoned) basically to extinction throughout the West. By the middle of the last century, they were gone from Washington, from the northern Rockies, from Yellowstone National Park. They joined the federal endangered species list at the beginning of 1974, only months after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. The state of Washington listed them six years later.

Times changed. In 1995, the federal government introduced Canadian wolves into Yellowstone. The wolves have thrived there, forming packs, raising pups, wandering beyond the park boundaries, where they are sometimes shot. A little later, wolves from Canada recolonized other Western states on their own, walking down across the border into Washington, Idaho and Montana, making their way into Oregon and Wyoming, too. Some wolves from British Columbia have walked south into Washington, while Alberta wolves that crossed the border farther east have come in from Idaho.

Washington's first confirmed breeding wolf pair appeared in the upper Methow Valley in 2008.

With the recovery underway, some western sheep and cattle ranchers feared the losses wolves might cause. Some hunters worried that the animals would devastate elk herds, or at least make the elk act like wild animals. Other hunters just wanted opportunities to kill wolves. Red-state politicians didn't want the federal government telling states how to manage wolves or anything else. As wolf populations grew, so did the political pressure to delist wolves so that both ranchers and hunters could get Canis lupus in their rifle sights.

The George W. Bush administration tried twice to oblige by removing endangered species protection. The first time, conservation groups got a court to enjoin the delisting, and the feds asked for a voluntary remand. The second time, a federal judge ruled that the delisting — which covered most but not all of the northern Rockies — violated the Endangered Species Act. The government appealed to the 9th Circuit.

In 2011, before the 9th Circuit had a chance to consider the issue, western Congressmen managed to take delisting away from the courts. For the first time ever, Congress — rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service — took a species off the endangered list. In a rider to an eleventh-hour bipartisan budget deal, Congress delisted wolves in the northern Rockies, including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and eastern Washington and Oregon.

Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are now being hunted aggressively. At the end of last year, the state of Idaho sent a hunter and trapper into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness — the largest federal wilderness area in the Lower 48 — to kill wolves so that there would be more elk for hunters. Conservation groups sued. They lost in federal district court, appealed to the 9th Circuit, and asked for an injunction. Before they could get it, the state stopped the wolf eradication project. But by then the state's trapper had killed nine wolves.

In Washington, as a result of the Congressional delisting, wolves lost federal protection east of Highway 97. West of 97, they're still listed by both the state and federal governments. East of 97, they're listed only by the state.

At this point, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife figures the state contains 52 wolves grouped in 13 packs, and at least five breeding pairs. The Lookout Pack, in which that first breeding pair appeared six years ago, was devastated by poachers, although it has been making a comeback. The Wedge Pack was destroyed by state marksmen after some pack members developed a taste for Stevens County livestock.

The state has a wolf management plan adopted in 2011 and amended by Department of Fish and Wildlife last year. It sets a goal of restoring the wolf population in Washington "to a self-sustaining size and geographic distribution that will result in wolves having a high probability of persisting in the state through the foreseeable future."

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Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The plan says this goal will be met when the state has 15 breeding pairs for at least three years, with at least four of the pairs in Eastern Washington, four in the northern Cascades, four in the southern Cascades/Northwest coastal area, and three others anywhere in the state. To produce 15 breeding pairs, the state would need a population of 97 to 365 wolves.

Scientists reviewing the plan in its draft stage warned that 15 pairs wouldn't be enough to assure long-term survival. Some conservation groups pointed to that comment in expressing disappointment with the plan, but they didn't oppose it. Compromise numbers and all, some conservationists think Washington's wolf plan is the nation's best.

Given the concerns about wolves in Eastern Washington, the plan is explicitly designed to minimize wolves' public relations problems. Its goals include managing wolf-livestock conflicts in a way that minimizes livestock losses and developing "public understanding." Ranchers get state compensation for any known or probable wolf kill. An amendment last year added goats, alpacas and various other species to the list for which compensation can be paid.

The state plan may soon be the only protection that Washington wolves can expect. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to make a decision later this year on its proposal to delist wolves in the rest of the West, which would leave only state protection throughout Washington.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife formally supports federal delisting. Some people think WDFW is dead wrong. Eleven environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, citing a negative peer review and a 2013 survey that showed nearly three-quarters of Washington citizens favor wolf recovery, have asked WDFW director Phil Anderson to withdraw that support.

The peer review panel expressed unanimity that "the rule does not currently represent the ‘best available science.’" In addition, a group of prominent carnivore biologists has written that the "gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains. The Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions."

But the feds say delisting makes sense. "We think wolves are very secure," says USFWS wolf coordinator Mike Jimenez. "Wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies as well as the western Great Lakes has been an incredible success story."

No one pretends that wolves are fully recovered west of Highway 97, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that they don't constitute a distinct population, and therefore don't require protection. "To be a listed entity you have to be a population," Jimenez says. In Western Washington, "you have two packs but they're not a population. The genetics and everything else indicate it's spillover from the delisted population in the Northern Rockies and spillover from Canada." The government has limited resources for wolf protection, and "where wolves really need help is in the Mexican wolf program" in Arizona and New Mexico, he says.

The carnivore biologists objected that "we cannot support the conclusion that wolves in the Pacific Northwest do not qualify as a distinct population segment." Critics also argue that gray wolf populations have never reached a point that more or less guarantees genetic diversity over the long haul. "Any time you reintroduce species, genetics are always an issue," Jimenez concedes. However, he adds, "our population now is as diverse as any population in North America." He says no one knows the chances of problems in the long run, so the feds require the states to collect genetic data.

The bottom line, legally, is "now that wolves are recovered . . . they are subjected to state management," Jimenez says. And he says that was the Fish and Wildlife Service's goal from the very beginning.

While many people are upset that wolf hunting is now allowed in parts of the West, states don't necessarily provide less protection than the feds. Referring to Washington and Oregon, Jimenez says, "Those states already have state endangered species acts." In fact, he says, the state acts' protections are stronger than the federal ones.

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Photo: National Park Service

Besides, if states screw up — by allowing hunters, ranchers, whoever to kill so many wolves that population numbers plummet again — the feds can move back in. The prospect of the feds returning provides "a huge incentive for the states not to screw it up," Jimenez says.

If you talk to national environmental groups, however, you get a different picture. They don't envision the feds coming back, no matter what. The federal delisting proposal means writing off recovery in regions such as Washington where wolf numbers haven't risen to sustainable levels, says Tim Preso, managing attorney of Earthjustice's northern Rockies office. If the Fish and Wildlife Service gets its way, Preso says, "The federal government is no longer in the wolf recovery business."

He thinks the decision to delist could set a very bad precedent: "There's a kind of fundamental crossroads decison here: whether in recovering a species it's OK to restore a population in one area and call it good enough for the rest of the country."

In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where the population has arguably been restored, Preso sees "a race to the bottom of ever more aggressive wolf killing." Even if the states maintain more-or-less adequate overall population numbers, they're not preserving connections of populations to each other, he says. They may create a situation in which the wolves are confined to national parks and wilderness areas. He notes that in Montana last year, a hunter could kill up to five wolves. Wyoming is worse, he says: "In more than 80 percent of that state the wolves have no protection whatsoever. . . . They went from endangered species to vermin overnight."

For the time being, at least, virtually no one is clamoring for a chance to shoot more wolves in Washington state. But what a difference a year makes. Last year, then-Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, sponsored a bill that would have allowed an owner, an owner's family member or employee to kill any wolf that "is attacking or poses an immediate threat of physical harm to livestock or other domestic animals." Another bill would have let county officials decide whether or not to rub out wolves after two attacks on livestock. Smith cited the story of a Twisp man who had stepped out onto his deck in the wee hours of a Sunday morning to find a wolf tearing the family dog to shreds. The issue became moot when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife amended the wolf management plan to allow any livestock or pet owner (or his family member or employee) in the eastern third of the state — i.e., the area east of Highway 97 — to kill a wolf attacking his livestock or pet.

There seems to be less emotion now, says WDFW Game Division manager Dave Ware. "Some of it started out as fear from the rural communities," he says. "People anticipated that wolf problems would be widespread — and they're not."

Ware says that it's still crucial to defuse conflicts. That may involve killing wolves that habitually order up lamb or beef, but it may also involve merely scaring the animals with beanbag or paintball guns. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, you can't do anything on that spectrum, Ware says. If you want wolves to sustain a recovery west of Highway 97, those tools are necessary. Wolves need public acceptance. Out there in the wide open spaces, no law can keep the wolves entirely safe from having accidents. The state is still investigating a February wolf poaching in Stevens County. Essentially, Ware argues that if it becomes an obstacle to public acceptance, federal protection will become an obstacle to wolf recovery. And that’s the biggest reason the state favors federal delisting.

There is also Washington’s enduring urban-rural, East-West cultural divide. "The rhetoric on both sides is generated in part by that big chasm," Ware says. ("It will be interesting to see," he muses, "once we do have wolves on the West side, whether that [urban] perspective changes.") He also thinks that some people on "both sides have found that the wolf issue can generate a lot of controversy and support for their cause, and a lot of contributions."

Beyond the fund-raising rhetoric, real conflicts between wolves and ranchers dropped last year, when Conservation Northwest, the state, and ranchers financed three range riders to keep herds safe from predators in Eastern Washington. With people around the herds more often, livestock losses have plummeted. The Washington Cattlemen's Association has cooperated with environmentalists.

Ware says that having people riding the range more frequently not only helps keep wolves away, but also helps with the overall care ranchers' animals receive. However, in the past, ranchers couldn't afford to pay people to do it, and the state had no funds to subsidize them. Now, thanks to a law passed last year that funnels revenue from the sale of special license plates to the program, the state does have money, and has been footing part of the bill. And the conflict-resolution program goes beyond range riding. The state is also helping ranchers afford electric fences and the removal of boneyards and carcass-dumping areas. (The program isn't confined to wolves. In the Blue Mountains, the state has also been trying to reduce conflicts between farmers and elk.)

While the state is finally in a position to offer more carrots, doesn’t federal protection provide a bigger stick with which to discourage poaching? After all, the family that poached wolves in the Methow (and tried to ship a bloody wolf pelt into Canada) wound up paying more than $80,000 in federal fines. Ware concedes, "I think it would help to have higher penalties." However, he points out that state penalties aren't exactly chopped liver. A first conviction for poaching a wolf may be only a gross misdemeanor, but it can get you up to a $5,000 fine, and a second, which is a felony, can get you up to five years in prison.

Whatever the penalties, Ware realizes that some citizens don't think government can be trusted to protect wolves from people, while others don't think government can be trusted to protect people from wolves. Finding consensus remains an uphill struggle, except for one shared article of faith. As Ware says, "Nobody, of course, trusts government."


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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.