Conservation groups protest to Gov. Inslee
Conservation groups have appealed to Gov. Jay Inslee to intervene after an outspoken wolf conservation advocate was abruptly dismissed from a citizen group that advises state wildlife officials on the management of endangered gray wolves.
Timothy Coleman of Republic, who has been openly critical of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) decisions to kill wolves that attack livestock, was removed from the Wolf Advisory Group by WDFW Director Kelly Susewind last week. In a letter to Coleman, Susewind cited his participation in lawsuits, protests and interviews as a “pattern of behavior” that eroded trust with other advisory group members and WDFW staff.
Representatives of 17 conservation and animal rights organizations signed a letter to Inslee last week expressing “outrage” at Coleman’s removal from the Wolf Advisory Group, known as WAG. Coleman has served since 2015 as a member of the advisory group, which is comprised of 15 citizens with an interest in wolf management including ranchers, farmers, hunters, outdoor recreationists, and wildlife advocates.
The advisory group makes recommendations on managing endangered gray wolves in Washington, including the development of wolf-livestock conflict protocols that guide WDFW decisions on killing wolves that attack cattle. Coleman has criticized WDFW for violating the protocols when determining that wolves should be killed.
Coleman is executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group, and lives in northeast Washington, where most of the state’s wolves reside and where most of the conflicts between wolves and cattle occur.
“He has filled a unique role on the WAG as the only environmental group representative who lives and works in the core wolf territories in northeast Washington,” according to the Aug. 13 letter to Inslee from conservation groups. “Frequently, Mr. Coleman was also the sole voice of dissent on the WAG in his opposition to Department actions favoring the interests of the livestock industry over wolves,” the letter said.
WDFW Director Susewind, in a letter informing Coleman of his removal on Aug. 3, said Coleman violated a “decision-making process” agreed to by WAG members which calls on members to support decisions made by the group, even if members opposed the decisions. Susewind said Coleman violated another agreement to provide notice to WAG members and WDFW staff if a WAG member planned to “take action that was not in support of WAG-based decisions, such as litigation, news releases, videos, etc.”
Susewind said Coleman violated WAG commitments by providing a declaration as part of litigation against WDFW in 2017 related to a lethal removal decision by the director; by participating in a protest against a lethal removal action and in a video that “put WAG members … in a negative light” in 2018; and by becoming a litigant in a lawsuit against WDFW in 2019.
Coleman was exercising his right to free speech, conservation advocates said in their letter to Inslee. “In none of these actions did Mr. Coleman challenge the WAG or any WAG-based decisions. In each of the actions cited in the dismissal letter, Coleman challenged only the department (WDFW) for its decisions and actions.”
Coleman said he was “devastated” by his dismissal from the advisory group, “where I was often the only voice speaking for those who believe wolves have a right to live in our state’s forests. The WAG is supposed to bring a diversity of viewpoints together to try to find solutions. But the department only wants members who will fall into line, even when it violates the protocol the WAG agreed to, and senselessly kills wolves to appease the livestock industry, like it did with the OPT (Old Profanity Territory) pack last year,” Coleman said in a statement issued by the conservation groups.
“The WAG has just become a means for the department to silence its critics by pretending to give them a seat at the table,” he said.
The conservationists called on Inslee to “reform” wolf management by taking policy-making power from WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group and using a public rule-making process to develop legally enforceable rules. Several of the groups signing the letter had petitioned Inslee in June to overturn the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s decision not to undergo public rulemaking and subsequent environmental analysis in developing policies for managing wolf-livestock conflicts.
Coleman’s removal “is an attack on free speech and clear evidence that wolf policy should be decided through public rulemaking, not by an insulated body of people who won’t stand up to the department,” said Amaroq Weiss, a wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The department (WDFW) and the Wolf Advisory Group are not held accountable to the public and has never been about fair, public process,” said Rachel Bjork, president of the Northwest Animal Rights Network. “Removing the key conservation stakeholder from the WAG has put a wedge in the public’s trust of this state agency.”
Susewind said, in his letter dismissing Coleman, that he would “seek a new representative from the environmental community for the WAG.” Coleman’s removal from the advisory group occurred one day before a scheduled two-day meeting where the group considered significant revisions to the wolf-livestock interaction protocol that the department relies on when making decisions to kill wolves.
Inslee has previously urged Susewind and WDFW to make changes in policies that rely on killing wolves to resolve conflicts with cattle grazing on public lands. In a letter to Susewind in September 2019, Inslee said “the status quo of annual lethal removal is simply unacceptable.”
In their letter, conservation groups referenced Inslee’s prior directive to WDFW to address the issue. “As Washington’s chief executive, you have taken initial steps to try to curb the department’s continued excessive and futile killing of endangered wolves. The department has been defiant in response. We ask that you reject the department’s excuses and persist in demanding more.”
Since 2012, WDFW has killed more than 30 wolves due to conflicts with cattle, the majority of them in northeast Washington. Protocols that WAG helped develop for managing wolf-livestock conflicts call for a variety of nonlethal measures to be taken by ranchers and wildlife officials to deter attacks on cattle before wolves are killed. Coleman and other critics contend that those measures are not always taken.
In recent weeks, Susewind has authorized killing wolves in the Wedge pack and Leadpoint pack in Stevens County due to depredations on cattle grazing on public and private lands. On July 27 WDFW shot a female member of the Wedge pack, and on Aug. 13 WDFW killed the two known remaining members — a male and female — of the Wedge wolf pack. Also on Aug. 13, Susewind authorized killing one or two wolves from the Leadpoint pack.
WDFW attributed 16 depredation incidents since May 11 to the Wedge pack, resulting in four dead livestock and nineteen injured livestock since May 11. WDFW attributed 11 depredation events since June 19 to the Leadpoint pack, resulting in three dead calves and nine injured calves. WDFW said preventive measures taken by livestock producers to deter attacks were unsuccessful.
Groups signing the letter to Inslee protesting Coleman’s removal include the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Wild Earth Guardians, Northwest Animal Rights Network, the Lands Council, Predator Defense, Project Coyote, Northeast Oregon Ecosystems, Mountain Lion Foundation, Western Wildlife Conservation, Farmer Frog, Indigenous Sisters Resistance, Western Wildlife Outreach, Cascadia Wildlands, Animal Wellness Action, Environmental Protection Information Center, and Center for a Humane Economy.