By Bob Ferris
The true character of any person, institution or machine becomes revealed by stress. You could think, for instance, that you were in good shape until you climb that steep hill and realize differently because your lungs are struggling, your heart beats like a drum and your head aches. For the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) the “steep hill” is wolf recovery. And as we look back at the Wedge and Huckleberry pack experiences we clearly see they are ill-equipped to handle this challenge or even see the most logical pathway—a rulemaking process—to remove themselves from this constant, consistent and well-deserved public beatings (1,2,3,4,5).
All bureaucracies fear change and generally need to be dragged kicking and screaming to any process that alters the way they do business, but even the most entrenched within this bastion of rigidity must understand that the current mode operation is not working. If forced to characterize the problem I would state it by saying the agency is deficient in comprehension, commitment and communications.
I am a wildlife biologist and have worked in the conservation arena for more than 30 years in various capacities. During my education I was deeply exposed to ecological theory and practice including an extensive examination of the evolution of ecological thinking influenced by folks like Aldo Leopold, Olaus Murie and others. Moreover, from my earliest education in the 1970s until now I have had the advantage of watching my profession evolve from an exercise in maximizing game and fish populations to an understanding of the value of maintaining ecological function and biodiversity. All this drives how I think and act in regards to conservation.
This above grounding allows me to easily recognize others with similar grounding and understanding. When dealing with WDFW’s upper management and my collective sense of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, I do not get this sense of intellectual resonance. Now granted the WDFW clings to the old-school and dated notion of maximization rather than managing for sustainability or resiliency, but even given that I do feel that there is much in the way of effort being exerted to swim upstream rather than float with the current.
Anyone who has been involved with wolf recovery understands that the successful pursuit of the activity requires commitment. Many states want control of this activity but lack the commitment and also do not grasp that management and recovery are fundamentally not the same thing. That is why many organizations—including Cascadia Wildlands—would prefer federal recovery efforts to state management. This is in part because we understand that these are different functions and approaches and because we have the negative examples of Idaho and elsewhere.
Communications with stakeholders are key to the success of any endeavor and wolf recovery is no exception. When done correctly communications engender connectedness and trust. When done poorly—as with the WDFW’s press release on the killing of the alpha female—they result in several thousand angry phone calls and e-mails to the Governor. That is a major public relations failure.
Why was this press release such a problem? Emerging science indicates more and more that maintaining pack structure is very important—which means it is critical to keep the alpha pairs. Our group and others were assured through various channels at WDFW that lethal control would be directed only towards young of the year and that the alpha pair would be preserved. Additionally, the WDFW, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Governor are engaged through various legal petitions and the Wolf Advisory Committee (WAG) either directly with Cascadia Wildlands or via our partners in the Pacific Wolf Coalition which makes us a stakeholder and gives us standing on this issue.
"The department’s wildlife veterinarian conducted a necropsy this week indicating the wolf was the pack’s breeding female." WDFW press release September 4, 2014
So when we find out—basically by accident—that the alpha female was killed nearly two weeks after she died,we are upset. When we find news of this event buried deep in what can only be characterized as a pro-ranching press release our blood pressure raises a little more. And when we see this monumental mistake mentioned offhandedly, in a manner that dismissively characterizes the role of this female, and that implies that the delay in notification is related to the need for a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) we really have to question whether this agency takes its role in wolf recovery or it responsibility to public at all seriously. (Please see trail camera photograph of lactating female wolf taken during the summer in Oregon to understand how absolutely silly the necropsy defense is.)
The list goes on and on, but the answer to all of this is for WDFW and the Commission to finally wake up and undergo rulemaking. With rulemaking they would emerge with an approach that incorporates the understanding of all the stakeholders including those of the conservationists and ranching interests reflected in rules for wolves as well as for livestock producers. With rulemaking WDFW would also demonstrate that they are committed to a recovery pathway rather than one that simply manages. And with rulemaking lines of communications as well as mechanisms for communication would be created that would make sure that all parties had the information that they needed.
The public scrutiny and openness may seem like a pain but the agency has to ask themselves how is this current path working for them. Because this public pressure will continue until WDFW makes meaningful changes in their program and their approach.