By Ann McCreary
Local politicians and conservationists have weighed in on opposites sides of the debate over a proposal to remove gray wolves from protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
As home to the Lookout Pack — the first gray wolf pack confirmed in the state in 70 years — the Methow Valley and its government representatives have a longstanding interest in the management and future of wolves in the region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) took public comments until Dec. 17 on a proposal to delist gray wolves throughout the United States, with the exception of a Mexican subspecies of wolves in the Southwest states.
The kind of protection being considered for the Mexican subspecies should also be considered for wolves in Washington state, according to comments submitted to FWS by the Methow Valley Citizen’s Council (MVCC), a local conservation organization.
One of its main points in arguing against delisting the gray wolf throughout the country is uncertainty about whether wolves in the Pacific Northwest should be considered a “Distinct Population Segment,” which requires protection under provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
“That gray wolves in western Washington are found only in small, isolated populations is evident from the map … of the delisting proposal,” MVCC said. It called on FWS to continue protection for the population of Pacific Northwest wolves “while new data is collected” to determine if they are a genetically distinct subspecies.
On the other side of the delisting question, the Okanogan County Commission, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association endorsed removing wolves from federal protection.
All noted the complexities created when wolves in the eastern one-third of the state were removed from federal protection in 2011 through a rider on a budget bill passed by Congress.
Wolves are protected as endangered throughout Washington under state law, and remain on the list of federally protected species in the western two-thirds of the state, west of Highway 97. The Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack is included in the area still under ESA protection.
“As is the state of Washington, Okanogan County is bisected by the line between areas where the wolf is listed versus not listed,” making management of wolves “an unnecessarily complicated challenge,” county commissioners said in comments submitted to FWS.
Commissioners argued that reclassifying Pacific Northwest wolves as a subspecies “would appear to serve no useful purpose other than to protect wolves in specific areas in response to pressure from advocacy groups that want to keep the endangered species listing in place or pre-empt state adopted management policies.”
Commission Chairman Jim DeTro traveled to a public hearing on the wolf-delisting proposal held at Pinetop, Ariz., last month. The county paid for his trip as a representative of the commission, DeTro said.
“I challenge you, delist, and give us local control, or come and git your damn wolves. We do not want them in Okanogan County,” DeTro said in his prepared testimony.
WDFW has publicly supported federal delisting of gray wolves for about three years, said agency director Philip Anderson.
In comments endorsing delisting, Anderson cited Washington’s “strong legal protections, a robust [wolf management] plan, and a strong commitment to successfully recover a healthy and sustainable wolf population in balance with one of the highest human densities in the West.”
The state wolf management plan adopted in 2011 outlines a variety of measures to manage wolf predation on livestock, including non-lethal means such as range riders, guard dogs, fencing and flagging. The plan also permits killing wolves that chronically focus on livestock as prey.
State wildlife officials exercised that ability in 2012, shooting nearly all members of the Wedge Pack in eastern Washington as a result of predation on a local cattle herd.
“Under current federal listed status, the Department does not have the legal authority to manage conflicts in the western portion of our state even if problem wolves cause chronic wolf-livestock conflicts,” Anderson said. He said the ability to kill wolves that repeatedly attack livestock will ultimately lead to greater “social tolerance” for wolves and prevent a pattern of livestock depredation that is learned by all members of the pack and their offspring.
“The lethal removal of problem wolves, used judiciously, both resolves the situation and increases public tolerance in rural communities,” Anderson said.
In arguing against delisting, MVCC said killing the Wedge Pack was legal only because the wolves were not under federal protection, and said that all non-lethal efforts outlined in the state management plan to end the depredation had not been attempted prior to killing the wolves.
MVCC said protection for wolves in Washington has been weakened by a new regulation that eliminates a requirement that a person obtain a permit to kill a gray wolf that is killing livestock or pets. “If the FWS removes ESA protection for western Washington wolves, the WDFW would be free to capitulate to pressure from ranchers or others to kill any wolf pack in the state, including the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley,” MVCC said.
Protections under state law are “considerably weaker than those conferred by the ESA,” MVCC said.
Penalties for violations of the ESA include fines of up to $100,000, with a maximum prison term of one year in jail. Penalties for illegally killing a state endangered species are up to $5,000 and/or one year in jail.
Anderson said that wolves in Washington are “experiencing robust population growth,” growing from the confirmation of the Lookout Pack in 2008 to 10 confirmed packs in 2013.