Goal was to reduce ‘conflict zone’ kills
Washington’s wildlife commissioners have chosen not to enact a new rule that was developed with the goal of reducing the number of wolves killed under state orders due to conflicts with livestock.
The rule would have designated areas of “chronic conflict” and required state wildlife officials to verify that livestock owners in those areas have taken appropriate measures to prevent conflicts before the state kills wolves after attacks on livestock.
The vote by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission at their July 8 meeting was 5-4, with the majority choosing to take no action on the rule that had been sought by Gov. Jay Inslee and wildlife conservation groups.
Under the proposed rule, areas designated as “Chronic Conflict Zones” would have specific plans, developed by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in collaboration with livestock producers, for lethal and non-lethal mitigation of wolf-livestock conflict. Before any wolves could be killed, WDFW staff would have to confirm that livestock owners had proactively implemented appropriate measures to deter wolves from attacking their animals.
The process of developing the proposed regulations governing wolf-livestock conflict began almost two years ago after Inslee ordered WDFW to work on an administrativwe rule to reduce the number of wolves killed on WDFW orders due to attacks on livestock.
However the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which determines policy and provides oversight for WDFW, voted for a “no action” alternative under an environmental impact study developed as part of the rule-making process. The vote means no changes are required in the way WDFW manages wolf-livestock conflicts.
Better rule needed?
The decision was criticized by Sophia Ressler, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations advocating for a rule change to strengthen conflict deterrence and reduce the state-authorized killing of wolves.
“Washington deserves transparency and accountability, but this Fish and Wildlife Commission decision fails communities and our wolves on both counts,” Ressler said in a statement after the vote.
“Science shows that nonlethal deterrents are effective in preventing conflicts, and it’s devastating to see the state fail to require them before gunning down a state endangered species.”
Melanie Rowland, a Methow Valley resident who was appointed to the wildlife commission earlier this year, joined the minority in opposing the no-action alternative. However, she and others said they didn’t necessarily like the proposed rule either, because they felt it didn’t go far enough toward the goals of protecting livestock and reducing the need to kill wolves.
“I believe we could do better and I’ll be working on what I believe that better rule should be,” Rowland said at the commission meeting.
“My main concern at this point is the poaching that has gone on and how can the department (WDFW) prevent poaching of wolves and other carnivores,” Rowland said. “It’s clear the department is understaffed,” she added. “Along with trying to find a rule that’s going to help us be better than we are now, I want to look into surveillance areas that could prevent poaching.”
Commissioners Molly Linville, Barbara Baker, Kim Thornburn, Jim Anderson and Don McIsaac voted for no action on the proposed rule. Anderson said a “strict rule would be counterproductive … an economic hardship (for livestock producers), and not really necessary. Rules for the sake of rules don’t make any sense.”
All five commissioners voting for no action on the rule were on the commission in 2020 when it unanimously rejected a petition from conservation groups to develop regulations for managing livestock-wolf conflicts. The conservation groups then appealed to Inslee, who ordered WDFW to develop a new rule.
Rowland was joined by Lorna Smith, Tim Ragen and John Lehmkul in opposing the “no-action” motion. All were appointed by Inslee since he ordered the rule-making about two years ago.
“Though the commission did not adopt the rule, several commissioners noted the need for additional work,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor, as reported by The Capital Press. She said Inslee planned to “discuss possible approaches for that work” in a meeting with WDFW Director Kelly Susewind.
Old protocols remain
The wildlife commission’s decision means that wolves will continue to be managed under non-legally binding protocols for lethal removal of wolves that have been developed by WDFW to guide the agency’s management of wolf-livestock conflict.
Department staff had argued that codifying a rule into law wasn’t necessary, because aside from designating conflict zones, they said most of the proposed rule was already part of the wolf-livestock interaction protocols, Rowland said in an interview after the meeting.
Since 2012, WDFW has killed 38 wolves due to attacks on livestock, including two this year, said Julia Smith, wolf policy lead.
“WDFW is committed to wolf recovery and the prioritization of non-lethal wolf-livestock conflict mitigation, regardless of the outcome of the rule making process,” Smith said. “We’ll stay committed to trying to minimize livestock losses and wolf removals in the absence of regulation.”
Measures to deter wolf attacks on livestock include fencing, radio-activated guard boxes, lights, guard dogs, and range riders. WDFW also provides livestock producers with location data on wolf packs with collared wolves so they can identify areas of high wolf activity.
Gray wolves were virtually eliminated by the 1930s throughout Washington state by hunting and trapping. The Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack, which was discovered in 2008, was the first known resident pack in Washington in more than 70 years.
An annual report by WDFW found at least 206 wolves in Washington at the end of 2021, and a total of 33 wolf packs in the central and eastern part of the state. The wolf population has grown by an average of 25% per year since the WDFW began keeping records in 2008, the department said.
Three packs with breeding pairs (Lookout, Loup Loup and Sullivan Creek packs) occupy territories in and around the Methow Valley, and each increased in size last year, WDFW reported. A breeding pair is a measurement of a pack’s reproductive success, and is defined as at least one adult male and one adult female wolf that raised at least two pups that survived until Dec. 31.
The Lookout pack, the oldest documented pack in Washington, had grown to 10 wolves at the end last year, two more than in 2020. That makes it one of the largest packs in the state; two other packs also had 10 members and no packs were larger than 10. The Lookout pack occupies territory in mountains southwest of Twisp.
The Loup Loup pack had seven wolves in 2021 compared to six the previous year, and the Sullivan Creek pack had six wolves last year, compared to five in 2020. Both packs occupy territories around Loup Loup summit.
A Wolf Conservation and Management Plan developed in 2011 established three “recovery regions” in the state — Eastern, North Cascades (which includes the Methow Valley), and Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast. Under the plan, wolves can be removed from the state’s endangered species list only when at least four successful breeding pairs are present in each recovery region and there are three additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for three consecutive years; or when there are at least four successful breeding pairs in each recovery region and six additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for a single year.
The Eastern recovery zone, which has the highest number wolf packs (21) and the highest number of wolf-livestock conflicts, exceeded the state’s minimum recovery goals in 2021, with at least four successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years, WDFW reported.