More On WDFW’s Final Wolf Plan And Deer-Elk Impacts

Over successive days next week, state and county officials in two different locations of Washington will take up the subject of wolves.

In Olympia on Thursday, Aug. 4, the Fish & Wildlife Commission will open up WDFW’s just-published 516-page “Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for Washington,” a path to eventual delisting of Canis lupus from state protections and a guideline for managing the species’ interaction with livestock, ungulates and humans. The seven-member citizen panel is scheduled to make a decision on it in early December.

The day before and 280 road miles away in North-central Washington, Okanogan County commissioners will hold a public hearing on their proposal to ask the state to delist the “deleterious exotic wildlife” now. One commissioner believes that the forerunner to today’s Department of Fish & Wildlife had no basis for listing wolves as endangered under state law to begin with. According to the Methow Valley News, Bud Hover also questions whether the wolves here are native to the state and speculates that WDFW may have reintroduced them, something the agency denies and in fact is a fantasy but will continue to resonate with some.

Meanwhile, with wolves here to stay, a further reading of the recommended plan highlights some positive tweaks for elk, deer and hunters.

In WDFW’s original draft, four alternative management paths were identified, and like any good multiple choice question, two of the options were unlikely. The other two can now be seen to basically boil down to Let’s-have-lots-of-wolves-all-over-and-let-’em-chew-on-game-all-they-want-till-they’re-recovered and Let’s-have-wolves-but-we-don’t-need-to-have-them-everywhere-and-we’re-not-so-sure-about-how-to-manage-the-whole-chewing-on-game-thing.

Ultimately, WDFW went with a modified version of the latter.

Again, the nut of the final plan is that the benchmark for state delisting — a gateway to potential future hunts — would be to have at least 15 breeding pairs over three consecutive years in three recovery zones (five in the eastern third of the state, four in the North Cascades, six in the elk-rich Southern Cascades/Southwest Washington/Olympics).

In the toolbox is translocation — moving wolves around the state to meet recovery goals. They didn’t agree on everything, but members of the agency’s Wolf Working Group who want lots of ’em and those who don’t want lots of ’em but nonetheless want to “share the joy” of wolves with hunters elsewhere in the state both supported this element. If used, it would move wolves to the Southern Cascades where prey, in the form of the Yakima and St. Helens elk herds, roam. That said, before any animals are darted and loaded into crates, because translocation would occur most likely on federal and state lands, WDFW would have to hold meetings, write plans, talk to the public, revise plans, talk more to the public, etc., etc. etc., a process that requires money — a wee bit problematic for the agency at the moment.

While the plan pointedly says that 15 breeding pairs is considered a minimum to achieve recovery, at that level and because not all wolves breed every year, the state would actually have something like 23 packs and from 97 to 361 wolves, according to WDFW’s best guess.

So, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, how will the plan deal with the impact of all those wolves on wapiti, deer and other hooved game mammals so Washington don’t end up like deepest darkest Yellowstone?

Here is what’s in the agency’s final wolf plan and how that differs (italics and bold-italics for key statements as I see them) from the previous preferred alternative and the other major alternative, which was supported by those who wanted lots of wolves and a fourth recovery zone in the western third of Washington.

Element: Ungulate management

Revised Alternative 2 Final Preferred July 28, 2011: Manage for healthy ungulate populations through habitat improvement, harvest management, and reduction of illegal hunting, consistent with game management plans.

Alternative 2 Draft Preferred October 2009: Manage for healthy ungulate populations through habitat improvement, harvest management, and reduction of illegal hunting. Manage harvest to benefit wolves only in localized areas if research has determined wolves are not meeting recovery objectives and prey availability is a limiting factor.

Alternative 3: Manage for healthy ungulate populations through habitat improvement, harvest management, and reduction of illegal hunting. Manage harvest of ungulates to benefit wolves in each recovery region until recovery objectives for the region are met.

Here is how WDFW’s thinking on wolves-deer/elk/caribou/etc. conflicts would be guided:

Element: Wolf-ungulate conflict management

Revised Alternative 2 Final Preferred July 28, 2011:  If the Department determines that wolf predation is a primary limiting factor for at-risk ungulate populations and the wolf population in that recovery region is healthy, it could consider moving of wolves, lethal control, or other control techniques in localized areas.

The status of wolves statewide as well as within a specific wolf recovery region where ungulate impacts are occurring would be considered in decision-making relative to wolf control. Decisions will be based on scientific principles and evaluated by WDFW.

Alternative 2 Draft Preferred October 2009:  After wolves are delisted, if research determines that wolf predation is a limiting factor for at-risk ungulate populations, could consider moving of wolves, lethal control, or other control techniques in localized areas.

Alternative 3: After wolves are delisted, if research determines that wolf predation is a limiting factor for at-risk ungulate populations, could consider moving of wolves, or other non-lethal control techniques in localized areas.

So what does “at-risk” mean?

“There was a lot of debate inside the agency on that,” says Gary Wiles, a state wolf biologist who has been up to his eyeballs in wolf plans for nearly two years straight.

The answer is now front and center in the plan’s Definition of Terms:

At-risk ungulate population — Any federal or state listed ungulate population (e.g., Selkirk Mountain woodland caribou, Columbian white-tailed deer), or any ungulate population for which it is determined to have declined 25% or more below management objectives for three or more years and population trend analysis predicts a continued decline. For populations for which numeric estimates and/or management objectives are not currently available, it will not be possible to use a specific threshold to assess a need for management action. Instead WDFW will use other sources of information related to the population, such as harvest trends, hunter effort trends, sex and age ratios, and others.

“Compared to the draft of two years ago, this is more specific,” Wiles notes. “It’s not so general or open ended, it’s putting bounds on what we’re talking about.”

As it stands, before voting on the recommended plan in December, the Fish & Wildlife Commission will hold four public hearings over the next four months, but of note for 509ers, only one of those will be held in Eastern Washington.

Spokeswoman Madonna Luers says that’s a cost-savings function. Three of the four align with commission meetings already scheduled in Olympia.

To hold them elsewhere would begin to rack up dollars. Her unofficial estimate is that it costs more than $100 a day to pay for hotel, per diem and travel of a single employee.

Wolf meetings would likely require not only the agency’s director Phil Anderson to be in attendance, but also the assistant director, Nate Pamplin, wolf manager Harriett Allen, Wiles, the commission itself, its staffers such as Susan Galloway, and others.

“Real quick, that’s a couple dozen people,” Luers says.

The upcoming commission hearings are slated for Thursday, Aug. 29, in Ellensburg, and Thursday, Oct. 6 and Nov. 3, in Olympia.

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