WDFW says no, but conservationists concerned

Wolf-postAn image from a video taken in May of a female wolf in the Lookout Pack territory shows teats that appear to be filled with milk, indicating she has given birth. Photo courtesy of WDFW

 

BY ANN McCREARY

Removing gray wolves from federal endangered species protection – as proposed earlier this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – would have little impact on the way they are managed in Washington state, according to Donny Martorello, carnivore manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

But conservation advocates who have promoted recovery of gray wolves in Washington say removing federal protection could jeopardize the “fragile” population of wolves in the Cascade Mountains – including the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack.

It appears the Lookout Pack may be making a comeback after near extermination by poachers. Wildlife officials have been monitoring two remaining wolves in the Lookout Pack territory, and Martorello said last week that it appears they produced pups this spring.

“We believe there are pups in the Lookout Pack,” Martorello said. “We have photographs of the female before she gave birth and after.” A video captured by a trail camera indicates that the female is lactating, he said.

A trapper for WDFW was in the Lookout Pack territory earlier this month attempting to capture and collar the wolves, but was not successful, Martorello said. He said the trapper did not attempt to locate a den “because he didn’t want to disturb the animals.”

Martorello said state biologists believe that pups may also have been born this spring in the Teanaway, Huckleberry, Diamond and Smackout packs.

The 2008 discovery of the Lookout Pack, the first gray wolf pack identified in Washington since the 1930s, launched the creation of the state’s wolf management plan. The plan calls for recovery of gray wolves throughout the state before they can be removed from state protection as an endangered species.

Martorello said an annual survey of wolves estimated there were 27 wolves, five wolf packs and three breeding pairs at the end of 2011. Last year’s survey indicated there were 51 wolves in nine packs with a total of five successful breeding pairs.

“The population nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012,” Martorello said. “Taking into account pack sizes, we believe the population is around 100 individuals. Now it’s June and there are pups on the ground.”

 

State protection

Wolves in Washington would remain under state protection even if federal officials take them off the endangered species list. The announcement by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) opens a 90-day comment period on the proposal, which would turn management of gray wolves over to the states.

In Washington, wolves in the eastern third of the state were taken off the endangered species list in 2007. However, wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington (including the Methow Valley) – with the Okanogan River and Highway 97 as the eastern boundary – remained under federal protection as endangered.

Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based organization that has monitored wolves in the North Cascades and advocated for their recovery, is urging federal wildlife officials to maintain protection for wolves in the North Cascades and Pacific Coast areas, arguing they are a “distinct population segment” of wolves that differ significantly from wolves in other areas of the country and therefore qualify for continued protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“If Fish and Wildlife Service delists wolves in the lower 48 states, a distinct population segment should be designated and protected in the Pacific Northwest,” Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest, said in a letter sent to FWS.

In announcing its proposal to delist wolves, FWS singled out Mexican wolves in southern Arizona and New Mexico as a population that should retain endangered species designation.

Wolves in the Pacific Northwest should likewise retain protection, argues Conservation Northwest, because they have characteristics that make them different from the wolves in the Rocky Mountain area to the east.

DNA obtained from Lookout Pack wolves has shown they are descendents of wolves living in coastal British Columbia, who lived separately from inland wolves for many generations, Conservation Northwest said in a press release.

“Over time, the coastal wolves adapted to local climatic and habitat conditions, creating a unique genetic profile. … Cascade wolves are different than those in the Rockies in other ways too – they are smaller in size; more reddish brown in color; and eat more salmon when available,” Conservation Northwest’s release said.

Federal officials are ignoring the logic they used in 2007 when they lifted protection for eastern Washington wolves, which are considered part of the Rocky Mountain distinct population segment, but retained protection for wolves in the western part of the state, said Jasmine Minbashian, communications director of Conservation Northwest.

“Either Cascades wolves are part of the Rockies population or they’re not,” Minbashian said. “It’s flip-flopping the argument. In a sense they’re claiming that because we have wolves in the northern Rockies, that’s good enough.”

Additionally, Minbashian said, it would make more sense to downgrade classification of endangered wolves to a “threatened” or “sensitive” species that would still retain some protections, rather than remove all protections and consider the species entirely recovered.

 

Fanning the flames

Wolves have been controversial in Washington and nearby Rocky Mountain states, pitting ranchers and hunters against conservationists who want to see wolves become re-established in their former habitats. Since federal protections were removed for wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, those states now permit wolves to be hunted.

The proposal to remove protection for wolves in the lower 48 states “fans the flames of controversy,” Minbashian said. “It almost encourages people to be more polarized.”

Martorello said because wolves will still remain endangered throughout Washington under state law, they will remain protected until the population meets the numbers required by the state wolf management plan. That plan calls for 15-18 successful breeding pairs, distributed throughout the state, before protection is lifted.

Removing federal protection will give the state the power to kill wolves that attack livestock or pets, as wildlife officials did last year with the Wedge Pack in Stevens County. Because the pack was in the eastern part of the state where wolves are not federally protected, state wildlife officials were able to shoot six of the Wedge Pack wolves after repeated attacks on cattle.

“It does allow that tool to be used and allows for more consistent management. As wolves expand westward, and they are rapidly … if you have that scenario we want the ability to deal with it,” Martorello said. “This year we’ve had no depredations other than the attack on the dog in Okanogan County.” He was referring to an incident in March in which a wolf injured a dog at a home near Carlton.

Penalties for killing an endangered species are considerably less under state law than federal law. Federal law provides for fines up to $100,000 and up to a year in prison for taking an endangered animal. State law provides for up to $5,000 in fines and and/or a year in jail.

Martorello said Washington state is seeing a “wave of recovery by viable (wolf) populations starting in the eastern part and moving westward.”

Three gray wolf packs have been confirmed in the North Cascades area – the Lookout Pack, the Teanaway Pack and the Wenatchee Pack.

USFW will accept comments from the public until Sept. 11 on the proposal to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. Comments can be submitted online at www.regulations.gov. Comments may be mailed to Public Comments Processing, Att: FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.