States, tribes would take over management
Gray wolves, listed as a federally endangered species in the western two-thirds of Washington state, including the Methow Valley, would be removed from the list of protected species under a proposal announced recently by the Trump administration.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves throughout the lower 48 states and turn management over to the states and tribes.
The proposal to remove the gray wolf from endangered species status was published in the Federal Register on March 15, opening a 60-day public comment period through May 14. Information on the proposal and how to comment can be found at www.fws.gov/home/wolfrecovery. All comments will be posted on www.regulations.gov. As of early this week, more than 1,700 comments had been submitted electronically.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt this month announced plans to remove gray wolves from federal ESA protections. “Today the wolf is thriving on its vast range and it is reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so in the future,” Bernhardt said. Removing gray wolves from federal protection leaves it to states “to carry on the legacy of wolf conservation.”
In Washington, gray wolves were first placed under federal ESA protection in 1973. In 2011, wolves in the eastern third of the state were removed from federal protections, and have been managed by the state. Wolves retain federal ESA protection west of U.S. Highway 97, State Route 17/U.S. 395.
Gray wolves are classified as an endangered species throughout Washington under state law and are managed under a state Wolf Conservation and Management Plan that sets goals for recovery of the species.
The Methow Valley is home to two known wolf packs, based on surveys by state wildlife officials. The Lookout Pack, first documented in 2008, was the first wolf pack confirmed in Washington state since the 1930s. The Loup Loup pack was confirmed in 2015.
An annual survey of Washington’s gray wolf population estimated five wolves in the two packs at the end of 2017, down from 11 the previous year. State wildlife officials are in the process of completing a wolf census for 2018.
Increasing in Washington
The most recent annual survey of wolves conducted by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) found the state was home to a minimum of 122 wolves in 22 packs at the end of 2017, compared to 115 wolves in 20 packs at the end of 2016. The overall number of wolves increased about 6 percent last year, compared to an average annual increase of about 30 percent over the past decade.
The announcement of plans to delist gray wolves drew criticism from some wildlife advocates, who said stripping wolves of federal protections would allow states to open hunting seasons for wolves and stop recovery in many parts of the country where wolves are beginning to repopulate their former ranges.
“Wolves are struggling to survive in Washington state and Trump’s plan will only make things worse,” said Amaroq Weiss, a wolf advocate with Center for Biological Diversity. “This administration continues to push the lie that wolves are fine and recovered. That paves the way in Washington for more wolves to be shot on behalf of the livestock industry.”
Under the state wolf management plan, wolves can be lethally removed if efforts to stop livestock depredation are not successful, but only in the eastern third of the state where wolves are not federally protected.
Conservation Northwest, a Washington-based environmental organization, said in a statement that due to the “collaborative wolf conservation work” done in Washington state over the past decade, “we do not expect delisting to have a significant impact on wolves in our state.”
Not recovered elsewhere
The same might not be true in other states, however, said Chase Gunnell, Conservation Northwest spokesman. “We empathize with concerns from our colleagues in states such as California and Colorado, where wolves have not yet recovered,” Gunnell said.
“Wolf recovery is progressing well in Washington and our wolves will remain a state endangered species until state recovery goals are met,” Gunnell said. “Given that federal delisting shifts the responsibility to prosecute and penalize wolf poachers to state and county officials, we do feel that the justice system in Washington state will need to keep a watchful eye on any such cases, with severe fines considering the scarcity of this species.”
Donny Martorello, wolf policy lead for WDFW, said the department “is well-prepared for this proposal as we have an existing wolf conservation and management plan that covers the breadth of Washington during recovery. Should the federal delisting proposal move forward, we will continue to work closely with our partners, stakeholders, and communities, just as we have over the past decade, on the recolonization of wolves in Washington.”
To help manage issues related to wolves, WDFW created a Wolf Advisory Group in 2013. The group membership includes livestock producers, hunters, animal rights and conservation groups. The group addresses issues related to preventing livestock depredation, providing compensation for economic loss due to wolf predation, monitoring recovery of the wolf population and its effect on deer and other prey species, and providing information to the public on wolf recovery in Washington.
The proposed delisting was applauded by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside), who has long advocated for removing federal protections. “We can see in Washington state that the wolf population is growing quickly while being effectively managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the eastern third of the state,” he said.