by Nick Cady
A highlight of Cascadia Wildlands' wolf conservation work includes a lawsuit that culminated in the successful negotiation of wolf/livestock conflict rules in Oregon between conservation groups, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and livestock producers. Those rules provided concrete guidelines as to when the state could kill wolves in response to livestock depredations and helped eliminate the hysteria generated every time there was a potential conflict.
In 2012, following the creation of the Oregon rule, Cascadia Wildlands then turned its eyes to Washington state. Washington at the time had approximately the same number of wolves as Oregon (60), but had yet to experience the wolf/livestock conflicts that had caused so much polarization in Oregon. Conflict between wolves and livestock in Wallowa County ultimately led to the livestock industry introducing wolf kill legislation, threats of poaching, and threats of secession.
Similar to Oregon, Washington had a wolf conservation and management plan that provided general standards for addressing conflicts between wolves and livestock, but the state lacked any specific rules or guidance on procedures that would be taken when livestock were killed. We have found in Oregon that concrete rules provided predictability in agency response to these conflicts, which helped reduce nerves in both the conservation and livestock communities. Additionally, these rules provided a clear path for Department staff to follow, which is critical because when there are dead livestock, the situation on the ground can become very heated and intense. However, things had been relatively quiet in Washington because there had yet to be a depredation event in the state, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff had been dutifully working to sign up large ranching operations with cooperative agreements to implement measures to prevent wolf/livestock conflict before it occurred.
Just as Cascadia staff began exploring the regulatory framework of the state, Washington experienced its first major depredation event in Stevens County, in the northeastern portion of the state where the Wedge Pack was denning. Despite clear requirements in the wolf plan that the Department focus on non-lethal measures and that the wolves were and are still in the first stage of recovery, the Department panicked and before even confirming wolves were responsible for the depredations and not just scavenging, ordered the aerial gunning of the entire pack. What made the situation worse was that the producer clamoring for the killing was a loud and well-known anti-wolf voice in the state and had openly rejected Departmental and conservation community assistance to prevent the depredations. The Department ended up spending over $77,000 in taxpayer money to kill the entire pack and appease the rancher.
The Department's actions appropriately caused massive public outcry, and resulted in an official legislative investigation into the event. Cascadia began organizing conservation allies, and filed an official rule-making petition with the Department to create lethal control rules similar to the rules developed in Oregon, so that the Department would not be pressured into a similar response in the future. After initial conversations, the Department agreed that rules were needed, and in exchange for us dismissing the petition, the Department agreed to begin negotiating rules through the Washington Wolf Advisory Group, which contained conservation, state, and agricultural representatives. After a year of too many meetings and very little progress made, the Department suspended the rule-making process, and Cascadia and our conservation allies refiled our petition with the aim of getting the attention of and enlisting the help of Washington's Governor Jay Inslee.
While this process was ongoing, Cascadia staff began catching whiffs of unrest in Stevens County again concerning a pack of wolves on tribal land, the Huckleberry pack. The pack had been hunted previously by the tribe, and was being suspected of being responsible for some missing sheep on lands bordering the reservation.
Cascadia has continually argued to the Department that research on the predator/livestock conflicts has shown that killing individual wolves does nothing to decrease depredations, but in some cases has been shown to increase depredation levels, because of a destabilized pack structure. Taking an entire pack may end depredations for a period, but it opens the area up to quick recolonization by other packs as has happened where the Wedge Pack was killed and replaced by the Profanity Peak Pack.
But with the Huckleberry pack, Cascadia staff received a call from the Department and we were informed that there had been some confirmed, weeks-old depredations, but the sheep had been moved out of the area, non-lethal preventative measures were beginning to be implemented, and a reassurance of "don't worry this will not be another Wedge pack situation." That weekend, we got a message that the Department had hired Wildlife Services (see more on this reckless agency) who was aerial gunning the pack. We managed to get ahold of agency staff, and we were told that they could not tell us what was going on.
We were able to generate a massive amount of public comment (thanks to our dutiful members) and got ahold of friendly legislators that were able to get the Department to suspend the aerial gunning and pull the trap line they had set for the wolves. The Department notified us that a wolf had been killed, and eventually discovered that it was the alpha female of the pack, which they apparently were instructed not to kill. We also discovered that the sheep had not be removed from the area, and the Department was not telling the whole story regarding the implementation of preventative measures.
Again, hysteria and public outcry ensued. The agency secrecy, lies, and the accidental killing of the alpha female outraged the conservation community. The killing of only one wolf and not the entire pack led to mass craziness in Stevens County, and a resolution by the County was issued, demanding citizens shoot wolves on site in violation of Washington laws (see more on Cascadia's response to this resolution here).
It became patently clear that things just were not working within the Department. The Governor became involved and called for a meeting between conservation interests and Department staff. Cascadia staff journeyed north, and big changes have resulted. First, the Department is going to completely restructure the Wolf Advisory Group, with an entirely new membership and oversight by an impartial mediator. Second, revision of the Department's lethal control guidelines occurred, which describe when the Department can and will move to lethal control. Third, the Department is looking to develop rules that would require livestock producers to have taken non-lethal, preventative measures prior to requesting lethal control. Finally, both Director Phil Anderson and Game Division Manager Dave Ware are stepping down, both who have been largely running the Department's wolf program.
Cascadia is cautiously optimistic about these pending changes, and believe this is an excellent opportunity to systematically reform wolf management in Washington, which is admittedly and obviously broken. Stay tuned for big changes in Washington, and Cascadia will be weighing in at every step. When the hiring process begins for new leadership in Washington, we will ask you to weigh in on this and other opportunities to shape wolf conservation in Washington. It has been a long haul thus far, and things are improving for gray wolf recovery in Washington state.