Hearing Held On Wolf Plan Bill

State representatives this morning heard arguments for and against a House bill that would require lawmakers to sign off on WDFW’s wolf management plan before the Fish & Wildlife Commission could approve it.

Those opposed said it would undermine four years of work on the draft plan; those in favor said the Legislature had every right to look into the bill and that it would hold the agency more accountable.

We first told you that lawmakers were working on what is now known as HB 1109 last November.

The prime sponsor, Rep. David Taylor (R-15th) of South-central Washington, told the half dozen members of the 13-representative House Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee in attendance the bill was “pretty simple.”

“It doesn’t allow us to amend (the bill), just to debate it: Is this a good idea?” Taylor says.

Currently the plan is slated to appear before the Commission this August, but if lawmakers decide it’s not a good idea, it and the accompanying environmental impact statement would go back to WDFW and its 17-member Wolf Working Group for another take.

Taylor says part of the legislature’s job is to protect the public, but says the plan doesn’t include discussion of potential health issues. Another bill he introduced this session, 1107, would require the Department of Health to work with WDFW and the state vet to “implement a program to detect, interdict, and assess the epidemiological consequences of diseases that may afflict or may be carried by wolves and the actual and potential impact of wolves’ role in such diseases upon human health in the state,” as well as identify people whose jobs or lifestyles might put them at higher risk to the illnesses.

That bill has gone nowhere, but then again it was surprising that 1109 came up for a hearing. In late February, a legislative staffer stopped short of saying it was completely dead, but said outside of parliamentary maneuvering, it wasn’t likely to have a hearing.

Its resurrection, apparently via committee chair Rep. Brian Blake, a Southwest Washington hunter and Democrat who had WDFW director Phil Anderson before the panel back in December talking about wolves, prompted groups like Conservation Northwest to rally members to today’s 8 a.m. hearing. Taylor, pointing to findings from a public disclosure request of the department, said the Bellingham organization has many ties with WDFW on wildlife and predator issues and the wolf plan.

Asked by Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Clark and Cowlitz County Republican, if he thought there’s a political agenda behind reintroduction of wolves into Washington, Taylor said “absolutely.”

Perhaps, but though it is a common belief, wolves have not been reintroduced directly into the state. Some from the mid-1990s releases in Central Idaho have crossed the Snake River into Northeast Oregon and they or their progeny are colonizing Washington’s Blue Mountains, as we reported last month. Other packs, such as the Diamond and Lookout, have crossed into the state from Northern Idaho and British Columbia.

Approximately 20 people spoke during public testimony, led by Jack Field of the Washington Cattleman’s Association, who supported the bill.

He says the state doesn’t have the excess deer and elk population to sustain wolf packs. A member of the Working Group, he says the agency hasn’t looked at annual big game mortality and hunter harvest to see if there are enough left over to feed packs.

Field also said the plan could be “quite costly,” and pointing the state’s current fiscal situation, said that providing compensation for livestock kills probably wouldn’t rank too highly on the list of budgetary priorities.

Currently, Defenders of Wildlife contributes to depredation payments in Washington; there has been one confirmed wolf kill so far. Northeastern Oregon has had a number of cow and sheep attacks.

Dave Dashiell, a Stevens County sheep and cattle producer, said he supported the bill. He spoke to problems with coyotes while trying to lamb up to 500 sheep, and said that while he used guard dogs, he’s heard stories from Idaho where canines went out to challenge wolves and never came back.

“It gives us a firewall between the game department and us … I’m not sure the game department are the ones looking out for our best interest,” Dashiell said.

A fifth-generation Adams County rancher said he was in favor of the bill, saying it made WDFW accountable to the legislature.

Ed Owens, representing the Hunters Heritage Council, says he supports the bill, and noted that the “largest stakeholder group,” the legislature, had every right to stick its nose in the issue.

Speaking to arguments about keeping politics out of wildlife management, he says the Fish & Wildlife Commission operates in a highly charged political environment.

John Stuhmiller of the Washington Farm Bureau, a member of the wolf group, said that while he “doesn’t have a problem” with the draft plan as is, he said he “doesn’t see a downside” to the legislature looking into it.

Rocky Beach, WDFW’s diversity manager, said that the agency was neutral on the bill, and that while it preferred that the final decision was made by the commission, he recognized that the legislature has a stake.

He said creation of the plan has cost $200,000 to $250,000 so far, paid for through “nongame-funding related bases” such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grant program (itself funded by offshore oil and gas royalties) and the state’s personalized vanity plate sales.

He said there have been eight meetings with the Working Group, seven scoping the plan, 12 public meetings around the state with 1,157 attendees and 229 spoken comments, a 90-day comment period with over 60,000 comments (most, however, from a single petition from Defenders of Wildlife), extensive peer review and blind peer review.

Beach did say the agency was willing to come back to the committee and talk about wolves.

Robert Steadman, a head and neck surgeon and former head of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, told the representatives that further stretching out the timeline on the plan “gives opponents more time to promote gray wolf hysteria. (This bill) deserves to die in this committee.”

Bruce Roberts, who grew up on an Idaho farm, pointed to a chart in the March 2010 National Geographic that showed that wolves accounted for just 1 percent of livestock 125,000 reported sheep kills in the Northern Rockies in 2008 while farm dogs took a far higher toll accounted for 1.1 percent. 

“There’s no hue and cry  for open season on dogs, or eagles or bears” which also contribute far more to annual losses, he said.

A Whatcom County man who said he’s read much of the work done on the plan and attended several meetings, said to run it before the legislature “undermines the hard work and professionalism of the Wolf Working Group and stakeholders.”

He called redoing the plan and EIS a redundant and expensive process, and said the current plan works for the majority.

Richard Chaplain, a private citizen, termed the bill an “obstruction.”

Seth Cool of Conservation Northwest explained that the group has been involved with wolf work in the state for over 20 years and is a member of the Working Group.

“We’re proud of our work, happy with the department,” he said.

They employ several hunters on their staff, have made at least two outreach efforts to talk with more sportsmen, and recently teamed with WDFW to offer significantly enhanced rewards for turning in deer, elk, wolf and grizzly poachers.

The hearing lasted about an hour and 19 minutes.

It comes as the entire region roils with wolf fever, a lingering effect of those reintroductions to Central Idaho and Yellowstone, wolf populations exceeding recovery goals in the early 2000s, continuous litigation that has largely prevented the states from taking over day to day management, a federal judge’s ruling that put wolves back under federal protections after a single season of hunting, current efforts to exempt wolves from the Endangered Species Act and long-standing values disputes.

While we hunters as well as livestock producers and rural residents have very real concerns about wolves that must be addressed, some of those against Canis lupus are, frankly, fear-mongering. Among today’s speakers was a man who said in 1980 there was a 70 percent mortality rate among Eskimos in an Alaskan village diagnosed with a type of tapeworm spread by wolf doots — a disease that the state and federal biologists and others who actually tackle and collar wolves with no apparent breathing masks or safety gloves appear to somehow be immune to.

One of those biologists, retired federal wolf recovery coordinator Carter Niemeyer, has handled hundreds of them and is trying to counter the overall hysteria. Supportive of the cattle industry, in favor of delisting (though not legislatively) and fair-chase hunting seasons, he recently published Wolfer, a book that sheds light on his time in the field. He was the guy who went  BC and Alberta to catch the wolves for reintroduction, but he tells me it was not done to “disarm America and do away with hunting.”

“All of us hunt, all of us fish, some of us trap,” he says of the federal biologists working on wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies. “Trust us, none of us did that to kill our recreational pastime.”

So far, he reports the folks he was sure who would buy the memoir — hunters, trappers and rural folk like him– have been “the least likely to buy, much less read it.”

He’ll be in Olympia’s Fireside Bookstore next Thursday at 7 p.m.

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