AS CANIS LUPUS MOVES INTO OKANOGAN COUNTY, THE AGENCY HAS A LONG-TERM PLAN TO ‘SECURE’ 80,000 ACRES OF RANCHLANDS THERE FOR ‘RARE, WIDE-RANGING CARNIVORES.’
Editor’s note: This version of the article printed in Northwest Sportsman‘s November 2010 issue clarifies how the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife aims to protect 80,000 acres of land in central Okanogan County.
WAUCONDA, Wash.—As Congressmen insert themselves into the wolf debate in the Northern Rockies, a group of Washington legislators are joining the fray in their home state.
Suspicious about how the species got here as well as their true numbers, the quartet of Eastside lawmakers are going through an estimated 7,200 pages of biologist emails, plans and other things wolfish they received through a public disclosure act request of the Department of Fish & Wildlife this past summer.
At the same time, they’re questioning WDFW’s effort to provide new corridors for “rare, wide-ranging carnivores” through Okanogan County. A plan shows the agency hopes to “secure” 125 square miles of ranchland in the heart of some of the state’s best mule deer country through a mix of acquisitions and conservation easements over the next decade.
And while Reps. David Taylor, Joel Kretz, Shelly Short and Matt Shea, all Republicans, are still chewing on the documents, work has already begun on a bill for the coming session.
“We’re in the process of drafting legislation to require the wolf [management] plan to come to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote,” says Taylor.
If passed, it could further delay the Fish & Wildlife Commission’s final approval of state guidelines for Canis lupus recovery, a plan that, once upon a time before breeding wolves were confirmed in Washington, was expected to be finalized in June 2008.
TAYLOR, A RANCHER in his late 30s who represents a large swath of South-central Washington, grew up in Kittitas County and now runs cattle on leases between Ellensburg and Sunnyside. Over the years he’s heard ranchers and hunters tell of wolf sightings from the Teanaway to White Pass, so last November he attended a public comment meeting on WDFW’s draft management plan and then began worrying about its handling of cattlemen’s issues.
“My concern escalated with the initial response from WDFW. They just didn’t think the concerns expressed were as high as I thought they should be,” Taylor says.
Afterward he became a contact point for others. One constituent told him about a man wandering around the woods with telemetry equipment. After WDFW claimed it didn’t know anything about the guy, Taylor filed the PDA request which yielded seven CDs and a stack of documents as thick as a big-city phone book.
“I’m still going through it,” said Taylor in late September.
He’s looking for “evidence of wolf populations that haven’t been made public. I personally believe there’s a higher population than the department would like to make public.”
Republican staffers in Olympia are also scouring Internet forums such as Hunting Washington for reports from hunters which state biologists may have poo-poohed.
One thing in the documents that has caught Taylor’s eye is Conservation Northwest’s involvement with WDFW. He brands the Bellingham organization an “environmental” group and says there is a lot of email traffic between them and state biologists.
“If you’re putting in time and money, there is some sort of payback – influence in the [wolf] plan or something,” he says.
Taylor, who defeated Democrat Tom Silva in early November to retain the seat he was appointed to in March 2009, says he’s spent enough time in small government to know the direction green groups are pushing, and points to the state’s 1990 growth management act which focuses new building in urban areas.
“It’s almost a conspiracy theory,” he admits, “but the progression is to remove people from working landscapes.”
ONE PARTICULAR WDFW document adds fuel to that fire.
A grant proposal submitted to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2009 makes it appear as if the agency has a Yellowstone to Yukon-like master plan for North-central and Northeast Washington.
It asks the Feds for $4 million in matching funds for “the second phase of an anticipated 5-10 year public/private effort to secure approximately 80,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat and vital wildlife corridors in the Okanogan-Similkameen watershed.”
A map with the request shows a pair of yellow lines through central Okanogan County. One stretches south from Canada through the Similkameen and Sinlahekin Valleys towards the Columbia. The other intersects it and heads east-southeast between Tonasket and Riverside and across the Okanogan River through a concentration of large ranches, nine of which are targeted for purchase.
The yellow lines are the wildlife corridors the grant speaks of. The second line is referred to as “the critical linkage … between the North Cascades and the Kettle/Selkirk Mountains for rare, wide-ranging carnivores (grizzly bear, gray wolf, lynx, wolverines).”
Protecting the land through conservation easements and fee-title purchases would help “maintain migration corridors for deer, moose and bighorn sheep (rare carnivore prey).”
It’s the phrasing – relegating game species to burger for footloose wolves and bears – that partly gets Rep. Joel Kretz.
“It really frosts me that sportsmen are the biggest contributors to the department and the reason for [the acquisitions] is to feed predators,” he says.
An aid tells me Kretz single handedly killed a bill supportive of the transborder Yellowstone to Yukon initiative in Olympia in a previous session.
FOR KRETZ, who ran unopposed for a fourth term to represent the 7th District in Northeast Washington, the issue of carnivores on the land is “personal.”
When not in Olympia, he raises cattle and working quarterhorses on a 1,400-acre spread at remote Bodie Mountain in eastern Okanogan County.
After voters banned hound hunting his herds ran scared. He says he had at least 20 cougar attacks, and on one occasion, a big cat deeply scarred a foal’s flank. Since then he successfully worked to legalize limited dog chases in his neck of the woods.
Now, wolves and grizzlies are returning to the delight of some Washington residents, but to the consternation of Kretz. He has at least one pack and possibly a second plus some stray grays in his district.
“It’s one thing to have wolves in the Pasayten [Wilderness] but another to have them down where ranchers are trying to calve,” he says.
Kretz says Washington lacks Idaho’s low-elevation public land – “Ninety-eight percent of the winter range is in private land” – and doesn’t have the ground to support the minimum 15 packs the draft management plan currently calls for to reach recovery goals.
“I think it’s foolish. This state can’t provide the habitat,” he says.
To help the species spread across Washington, WDFW would translocate wolves from one part of the state to areas they might not otherwise reach.
Kretz defiantly says he’ll make sure they get to the Olympic Peninsula.
“I’ll propose a wildlife corridor through downtown Seattle. If they’re so good, they can have them,” he says.
But how they got here is an open question for some. Kretz says there’s a “lot of concern” that the game department – or wolf lovers in cahoots with them – are bringing wolves in any which way they can.
For instance, he wonders why wolves went through so much game-rich territory before denning up near Twisp, in western Okanogan County. That’s the home of the Lookout Pack which produced pups in 2008, 2009 and possibly this year, though the alpha female is missing and believed dead.
“They’ve popped up in some odd places,” Kretz says.
One story has it that a white rig, not unlike a Schwan’s delivery truck, was spotted resupplying the Lookout Pack with eight more members in spring 2009. A more dated one has it that Weyerhaeuser parachuted them into the Willapa Hills to reduce elk and deer damage to young trees.
The stories can be believable for those wary of government and environmentalists.
“I don’t have any hard evidence,” Kretz admits, “but I don’t trust that agency.”
His distrust grows with every acre of land WDFW buys in Okanogan County. All totaled it owns over 73,000 acres, including recent buys of 815 acres around Buzzard Lake south of Conconully and 4,000 acres in the Methow Valley. A 2,700-acre deal in the Similkameen is pending.
Kretz says the issue is “nuclear, beyond hot” because it takes working land out of production, hurting related operations, affects tax collection, and can aid the spread of invasive weeds.
“If you don’t have money to maintain lands, why buy more?” he wonders.
DAN BUDD, WDFW’s real estate division manager, recalls watching helplessly as a huge Okanogan County spread was cut up.
“Twenty years ago, when we didn’t have the money, [Junior Eder] had 20,000 acres,” he says of a ranch east of Oroville. “He had a big urge to sell land and sold off 10,000 acres to Lynn Barnett of the Tacoma Land Company.”
Nowadays, homes and building sites on 20- and 40-acre parcels dot the land, though WDFW has since bought 5,738 acres of the farm.
For Budd, who himself comes from a ranching family, purchasing land or conservation easements in Okanogan County just makes sense.
“Whole watersheds are intact,” he says. “The reality is that’s where the big open spaces are at, where the big animals are.”
By comparison, he says it doesn’t do much good to buy land for elk on the far more developed Kitsap Peninsula.
Budd doesn’t deny that buying ranches is a hot topic.
“We’re only buying from willing sellers. We’re not pushing them off,” he says. “Those who’ve provided stewardship for more than one generation are approaching us.”
As elsewhere in the West, the ranching economy here is in trouble. A recent study by a Bozeman consultant found that between 1993 and 2008, developers and investors bought 43,775 acres of cattle land in central and eastern Okanogan County while ranchers themselves purchased 41,983, government agencies 11,410. But roughly two-thirds of those cowboy-to-cowboy deals occurred between 1993 and 1996. Almost every year since speculators and amenity buyers have bought the most land.
What’s hurting livestock producers, the study says, is long-term income stagnation and, in recent years, higher hay and fuel costs. With too few cattle to support them, two local stockyards also closed in 2000 so ranchers now have to truck their animals to lots 150 and 250 miles away.
Budd worries about what will happen when the economy improves and people again begin buying property.
“If we don’t block it up,” he says, “you’re not going to have the wildlife.”
PERRY HOUSTON is the planning manager for Okanogan County. At 5,332 square miles, it makes up 8 percent of the entire state of Washington, but 80 percent of the county outside the Colville Reservation is federal wilderness, national and state forests, BLM land and wildlife areas, he says.
And with WDFW “very aggressive” about buying some of the remaining ranches, local politicians want to whoa up for a moment.
“The cry isn’t to stop it. It’s to review it. Let’s talk about this,” Houston says.
He says the county commissioners want the agency to prepare a State Environmental Policy Act study.
“We’re asking for an analysis of the fiscal and economic impacts as more and more and more land is converted to public ownership,” Houston says.
(WDFW lands manager Jennifer Quann says land acquisitions are exempt from SEPA. She says there won’t be any slow down in attempts to buy property, but that there would be more external review.)
Houston says the county isn’t against folks selling to the state, but every exchange leaves less and less room for future development and thus increased tax revenue.
“The percentage of impact increases as you slice off” more ranches, he says.
DAVE BRITTEL IS WDFW’S assistant wildlife program manager. He admits that if he were looking for “mischief” in the agency’s dealings on wolves, the carnivore-centric phrasing in the Okanogan-Similkameen grant proposal might be it.
“That makes it awkward, you’re right,” he says.
But the verbiage appears to be a function of what it takes to shake loose money from USFWS. Plug in words like “Canada lynx,” “bull trout” and other endangered or threatened wildlife, add that there’s connectivity to nearby public lands, and the coffers seemingly swing open – especially for WDFW.
“The intent of these grants is to acquire habitat for listed species,” says Joan Jewett, a USFWS spokeswoman in Portland.
Since 2001, her agency has awarded at least $28.74 million for land buys in Okanogan County. WDFW then matches that with grants from the state Recreation and Conservation Office, itself funded by state gas tax and bond sales, and the federal government.
In the 2011-13 biennium, WDFW sent RCO a wish list for $73.5 million to buy 82,000 acres of habitat across the state, including 20,000 in Klickitat County, 15,000 in Benton County, 9,000 in Asotin County and 8,400 in Kittitas County. It’s also asking for $12 million to buy 4,300 acres in Okanogan.
WDFW’s success with scoring grant money rankles Kretz, but Brittel points out that hunters want the land conserved.
“They want mule deer to get from the Pasayten to the valleys,” he says.
AS TAYLOR AND KRETZ’S staffers dig into sites like Hunting Washington, they will find nearly as many reports of wolves there as they can find in WDFW’s own records. Together, the draft plan and a 1998 paper list over 800 different howls heard, tracks seen and critters spotted across the state the past 35 years.
Over 250 sightings between 1975 and 1995 are considered confirmed wolves or highly likely to be, but wolf-dog hybrids – released by owners who can’t handle their pets, find another home for them or have them euthanized – lead to false sightings, giving biologists fits.
For example, in 1992 WDFW’s Scott Fitkin captured, collared and released an animal near Mt. Baker. Big news at the time, but a month later it was determined to be a hybrid, so it was recaptured and taken to Wolf Haven International near Tenino where it was nicknamed Nooksack and died in 2005.
Wolf Haven doesn’t take them anymore, but still gets “two to five calls or emails a week from people who have wolf-dog hybrids and are looking for a home,” says spokeswoman Kim Young.
They refer owners elsewhere, though those facilities are often full. “We hear occasional stories of people dumping [hybrids],” adds Wendy Spencer, also at Wolf Haven.
WDFW spokeswoman Madonna Luers says crossbreeds have been released north of Spokane near Diamond Lake. An agency enforcement officer also says he treats wolf reports with a grain of salt because sometimes upon investigation they turn out to be just a local’s dog wandering the woods.
However, a real female wolf that was turned loose in southern British Columbia led to a flurry of sightings of adults and pups on upper Ross Lake in the early 1990s. The woman who raised then released the animal vehemently denied state biologists had any part in it when we spoke in early fall. But Seattle Times articles from that period – including one with a dubious passing reference to a whopping six packs in the state’s Cascades – are sometimes dredged up to discredit WDFW’s claim that the Lookout wolves were the state’s first confirmed breeding pair in 70 years.
SOME OF THE FIRST images of that pack and its six pups came off of Conservation Northwest’s trail cameras. The group is headed up by Mitch Friedman, one of Earth First’s original tree sitters. Now he’s hugging loggers.
And the gun.
I met him in mid-September as CNW campaigned in Seattle for new wilderness, more sawlogs and continued cattle grazing in the Colville National Forest (see page 14 of the November issue of Northwest Sportsman). He surprised me when he said he hunts Okanogan County, as do I.
Suspicious he was just orangewashing himself, though, I checked with state sources and found he’s actually bought a deer tag every year since 2001. Over that time he reported killing three bucks and one doe with a rifle. He sent me pictures of himself posing with two, a spike whitetail and nice muley.
Friedman later blogged that he’s a “nature lover” and “sportsman” at the same time. He explained of CNW, “Part of our role is to bridge the gap between various pro-nature ethics, urban/rural, and hunter/nonhunter, because this is what helps wildlife best.”
One of their staffers – who also hunts – is on WDFW’s Wolf Working Group (as are several ranchers and sportsmen), and CNW and the state collaborate on a network of trail cams and wildlife conservation issues, thus the contacts with biologists.
The group also recently helped keep the Colville Valley’s indebted Dawson ranch, which provides deer habitat, from being broken up by funding half the purchase of development rights on 164 acres of it.
ED BANGS, THE USFWS’s wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rockies, has been working with the species for 34 years. He’s known by some as “Mr. Wolf” for his expertise while extremists simultaneously call him one of the foremost murderers of wolves and destroyers of big game herds in the U.S.
One thing that Bangs says most people don’t realize about wolves is how mobile they are, so he understands why stories like the Schwan’s van pop up.
“We got the same thing with wolves showing up in Glacier National Park in the 1980s,” he says.
Bangs says they’re “world champions” at covering ground and finding mates. “That’s really startling to people who say ‘There’s no wolves within 100 miles of here.’”
So stories of nefarious government agents and/or whacko greenies bubble up.
“It’s a very common story, and it’s worldwide,” he says.
When the wild canids made their return to Sweden, “the strong rumor or suspicion was that biologists moved them in when in reality they probably walked across the frozen Baltic Sea … or around the top through reindeer-herding country,” Bangs says.
With drastic drops in a few Northern Rockies elk herds, I snorted loudly when he said wolves are “easy to manage,” but had to agree when he quickly added “the people issues are very difficult.”
Wolves’ symbolism through the ages and their similarity to us makes them powerful totems for both poles of the debate.
“When you stretch your credibility, you lose it, and it happens on both sides,” Bangs says, scoffing at hydatid worm worries and new-age notions of the species – “‘The wolves are going to give your kids brain cysts.’ The other side, ‘Wolves are balancing the world.’”
BUT THERE’S ENOUGH anger over the continuing delisting fiasco that Montana and Idaho’s Congressional delegations are working on bills to exempt wolves from the Endangered Species Act all together. Here in the other Washington, it will be interesting to see what more the state legislators find in the material from WDFW.
“To their credit they’ve been pretty forthcoming,” Kretz allows. He and Taylor also speak positively of agency director Phil Anderson, at the helm almost two years now.
Next month, the House Agricultural & Natural Resources Committee is expected to hold a work session on the wolf plan. Taylor says they’re working to bring in state and federal experts.
And if that bill requiring an up-or-down vote is passed, the plan would then go before lawmakers. If they approve, it would go to the Fish & Wildlife Commission for final sign off.
“But if the Legislature says no, it’s too overarching, it’s not looking at economic impacts, then it would go back [to WDFW] for additional work,” says Taylor.