Will focus on policies, actions in eastern Washington
To better manage endangered gray wolves in the challenging and controversial environment of eastern Washington, including Okanogan County, a new position has been created by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The goal is to help WDFW interact with local communities, state and federal agencies and elected officials in this part of Washington, which has the biggest concentration of wolf packs and the highest number of wolf attacks on livestock, said Donny Martorello, WDFW wolf policy lead.
Okanogan County is home to three wolf packs that occupy territories in and around the Methow Valley. However, compared to counties further east, there have been relatively few incidences of attacks by wolves on livestock in this area.
An annual survey of wolves by WDFW found 26 packs in the state by the end of 2019, and 21 of them were located in the eastern part of Washington. “When you think about the northeastern tier, four counties encompass a lot of the packs in the state, and overlap with [livestock] grazing,” said Martorello.
WDFW felt a need to strengthen coordination between the agency and local officials and communities in Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, Martorello said. “In that northern corner east to Pend Oreille County there’s a lot going on, especially in summer during grazing season. We need someone to manage all those connections in the local area.”
The three wolf packs in and around the Methow Valley (Lookout, Loup Loup and Sullivan Creek) live in a part of Washington where gray wolves are still federally protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2011, wolves in the eastern third of Washington, roughly east of U.S. Highway 97/State Route 17/U.S. 395, were removed from federal ESA protection.
Gray wolves are protected under state law as an endangered species throughout Washington and are managed by WDFW in the eastern third of the state. Under WDFW’s Wolf Management and Conservation Plan, protections can be lifted when wolves are considered to be recovered.
WDFW’s Region 1 (eastern Washington) director, Steve Pozzanghera, has been appointed to fill the new interim position, working out of the Colville District office, to provide “support and direction to WDFW wildlife program and enforcement staff in the four counties,” Martorello said. “We have so many irons in the fire and so much going on, Steve has jumped in to help us manage on the local level.”
Although the focus is on the counties east of Okanogan County, “for consistency we are making this position help out in all those areas [including] the portion of Okanogan County that is federally listed,” Martorello said. Pozzanghera will assist WDFW wildlife and enforcement staff in their work with local and federal officials over the next six months to “manage all those connections in the local areas,” and develop a description for a permanent position, Martorello said.
Although this year’s grazing season has just gotten underway, conflicts between wolves and cattle are already occurring in eastern Washington. On June 19, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind authorized killing two wolves in the Togo Pack territory in Ferry County due to six confirmed attacks on cattle grazing on public lands in the Kettle River Range over the past 10 months.
Since 2012, 26 wolves from different packs have been shot in the same area under WDFW authorization (out of a total of 31 wolves removed statewide during that time) due to attacks on cattle turned out on national forest lands.
The lethal removal of wolves has prompted legal action over the years by advocates for wolf conservation, including a new lawsuit filed on June 17 in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
The suit, filed by three conservation groups, challenges the U.S. Forest Service’s revised Forest Plan for the Colville National Forest – where the Kettle River Range is located – for “failing to evaluate how the agency’s federally permitted livestock grazing program adversely affects wolves.”
The lawsuit also challenges the Forest Service’s approval of cattle grazing in the Kettle River Range for Diamond M Ranch, “which is responsible for the majority of wolf deaths on the Colville National Forest since 2012, without requiring any measures to prevent these wolf-livestock conflicts from recurring,” according to a press release. The lawsuit was filed by Kettle Range Conservation Group, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project.
Martorello said he could not comment on whether Diamond M Ranch has used recommended measures to prevent conflicts, such as range riders, because of pending litigation. A lawsuit filed last year in King County Superior Court centers on whether WDFW needs to do a State Environmental Protection Act review of its lethal removal protocol, said Timothy Coleman of Republic, who is the plaintiff in the suit.
The lawsuit challenges WDFW’s killing of wolves in the Kettle River Range as unlawful because adequate non-lethal deterrence was not put in place and WDFW ignored the fact that “the producer had not been deploying adequate non-lethal deterrence and would not allow department range riders to provide additional deterrence,” Coleman said.
Last September, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote WDFW Director Susewind a letter asking the agency to update guidelines for lethal removal of wolves, saying the “status quo of annual lethal removal is simply unacceptable.” Inslee also urged WDFW to work with the Forest Service and other public land managers “to make changes that would reduce conflicts.”
Martorello said WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group, a group of ranchers, conservationists, hunters and other stakeholders, has been discussing “how we can have more reliance on non-lethal tools and increase the efficacy of those.” That includes using range riders to keep wolves away from cattle. “It’s one of the best nonlethal tools for that dispersed range area,” Martorello said.
He said WDFW has not yet completed a plan that addresses the governor’s concerns, because the process has been slowed by impacts on the department from the coronavirus shutdown.