Revised Wash. Wolf Plan Out

UPDATE: 10:30 A.M., JUNE 2, 2011: The Wenatchee World and Methow Valley News have articles on the revised plan.

Ranchers and dog owners whose animals are being attacked by wolves in Washington would be freer to shoot them while Canis lupus population levels needed to reach certain state recovery goals would be more restrictive.

Those are two of the main changes in a new version of the state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s draft wolf management plan, released today, though far from finalized.

It follows thousands upon thousands of public comments as well as scientific review, much of which seemed to focus — as everywhere else in the Northwestern U.S. — on how many wolves constitute recovery.

While many folks wanted to up the number of breeding pairs needed before wolves are taken off of state protections and potentially hunted as well as add a fourth recovery zone, the current plan keeps it at 15 over three consecutive years in three different regions of the state.

But whereas the previous version allowed a certain number of packs to be “at large,” the plan now requires set numbers in Eastern Washington, the North Cascades and South Cascades/Northwest Coast regions.

“That’s a little more restrictive,” says Madonna Luers, a WDFW spokeswoman.

Full delisting would require six breeding pairs east of Highways 97, 17 and 395 — the area where wolves were recently taken off of the federal Endangered species list but remain under state protections — five west of 17 and 395 and south of I-90, including the Olympic Peninsula, and four north of I-90 and west of Highway 97.

WASHINGTON RECOVERY REGIONS WITH CONFIRMED PACK LOCATIONS. (WDFW)

That would give the state anywhere from 97 to 361 individual wolves, the plan estimates, but says it may also take “take years to several decades” to reach the goal.

If the welcome that the Lookout Pack has received in the Methow Valley is any indication, it could take even longer.

That said, the revised document says that 15 pairs wouldn’t be a “cap” — “The plan does not place a limit on the numbers of wolves that will be allowed to live in Washington” — and while it pointedly notes that it is a recovery plan, it does address hunting: “After delisting, it is anticipated that the WDFW would recommend listing as a game species. Proposals to hunt wolves following delisting would go through a public process with the Fish and Wildlife Commission.”

Under the last version, livestock owners couldn’t shoot wolves caught in the act of attacking cows and other farm stock until they were listed as state threatened status — the midpoint of three layers of protection and a step below endangered, a level above sensitive — but in the new version now could at any listing level, Luers says.

Kill rules would be similarly relaxed for dog owners whose animal is under attack.

Wildlife managers would also be able to take more proactive actions if “at-risk” ungulate populations were being affected by wolf predation. The definition of “at risk” includes rare listed species such as woodland caribou and Columbian white-tailed deer, but also “a game species’ population that has experienced a dramatic decline from historical levels and has stayed at low levels for a significant period of time.”

That, however, would not mean, say, an elk herd that’s just below management objectives.

“The semantics will be debated at the (Wolf Working Group) meeting — what does that mean? If you’re still hunting a population, are they at risk? Probably not,” Luers says.

The new plan also talks about the state’s current wolf population, which WDFW is trying to get a better grasp of this spring. Luers says that the agency’s trapper, Paul Frame, will be in the Teanaway between Cle Elum and Leavenworth next week looking for wolves.

“We’ve gotten a number of pieces of information from there — remote cameras, sightings. Something’s going on. Some large canids are in the Teanaway,” she says.

“Large canids,” however, could also mean wolf hybrids, such as the one hit by a vehicle near Davenport in summer 2008.

Frame will also return to the Hozomeen area on upper Ross Lake and the Blue Mountains, Luers says.

At the end of 2010, there were a minimum of 18 or 19 wolves in three packs in the state. As it’s pupping season right now, it’s likely that number will be higher at the end of the year.

The new draft is available in redline and unmarked versions. The former version is 330 pages, the latter 295. In the redline document, the different colors correspond to the work of three different WDFW staffers who went over the plan, and there are many small tweaks.

“It’s the first new version in a year and a half,” notes biologist Gary Wiles. “There’s updated info on the Diamond and Lookout Packs, updated info on surrounding states. So much goes on with wolves, there’s a lot that needs updating.”

Indeed, since October 2009’s draft, which drew some 60,000 public comments, wolves in the Northern Rockies have been delisted, relisted and are now off the federal endangered species list in most of that recover region, with hunts planned in Idaho and Montana. Oregon’s population has grown from 14 to 21 at the end of 2010, though three have since died, two by agency control, one by other causes.

Back in Washington, more debate and public comment is planned in the coming months.

“Stay tuned,” says Luers. “We’ll see what the Wolf Working Group does with the plan. I suspect we’ll be tweaking it again. When it goes to the Commission there will be more opportunity for public comment.”

The wolf group — comprised of hunters, livestock interests, wolf advocates and others — meets June 8-9 to review the proposed revisions. The meeting will be held at the Heritage Center of the Kittitas Valley Event Center, 512 N. Poplar St., in Ellensburg, and will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 8, and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 9.  As with past meetings of the advisory group, the working group’s meeting is open to the public but it is not a public-comment opportunity.

The commission will get the plan at its Aug. 4-6 meeting in Olympia.

Two commission workshops on the draft wolf plan are scheduled in eastern and western Washington in September and October. Those workshops will be open to the public. The commission is scheduled to consider adoption of the plan during its Dec. 2-3 meeting in Olympia.

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