BY RICH LANDERS THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW
“Wolves are the most challenging wildlife issue on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s plate this year, bar none,” says Nate Pamplin, assistant director. “And we don’t want to be alone in it.”
Wolves also pose the most divisive wildlife issues, he said in a presentation to sportsmen in Spokane recently.
Moose also are a species of concern this year, as states to the east through Minnesota are devoting millions of dollars to study declines in the largest member of the deer family, said Rich Harris, the agency’s special species specialist.
“We haven’t documented a decline in Washington moose,” he said. “But we we’re working to get a better picture.”
Understaffed and underfunded Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologists are asking the public to help monitor both of these marquee species.
People who definitely see a wolf or a moose are requested to devote a few minutes online at the agency website’s observation reporting pages, where visitors can see other reports compiled on a state map.
The plea comes as the agency ramps up to manage a booming apex predator as well as a prized big-game species that’s still spreading across the state but could be reaching its peak in numbers.
Top-tier wildlife officials offered insight on their challenging obligation to manage these critters during a program for the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
“Of all topics we deal with in the Wildlife Program… wolves are the one topic that does not bring us together as wildlife managers and sportsmen,” said Pamplin.
The state is obliged to deal with wildlife according to law. Sportsmen have a special interest in the appetite wolves have for big game. That puts wildlife managers and sportsmen on the same side of the fence, but with their britches hung up on different points of barbed wire.
“Wolves are naturally moving into Washington and we need help from people knowledgeable about wildlife to dispel the myth that we’re trapping and introducing them,” he said.
Since the first wolf pack was confirmed in 2008, at least 10 packs have formed with territories of up to 300 square miles. Wolves are close to saturating their habitat in northeastern Washington, he said. That means some wolves will continue seeking to create new packs in other areas.
“They’re booming,” he said, noting a 30-40 percent annual wolf population growth rate. “We don’t see that with other wildlife species.”
The agency must take measured steps in dealing with wolves and their impacts on big game as well as livestock according to the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, adopted by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in December 2011.
The state held 23 public meetings and received 65,000 comments as that plan was developed by a 17-member citizen panel and peer reviewed by scientists, he said.
“For comparison, there were 3,000 comments on the $40 billion state budget proposed by Gov. Gregoire,” he said.
The plan directs the agency to allow for sustaining a population of wolves while maintaining a healthy prey base and managing conflicts with livestock and impacts on big game.
More staff will be hired and devoted to wolves this year, he said. Public wolf observation reports will help the agency direct their attention to new pack territories where wolves can be trapped and radio collared to collect data and improve management.
“We won’t know the actual impact of wolves on anything until we get out on the ground and do the research,” he said.
“Washington has sufficient ungulates (primarily deer, elk, moose) to support wolves through recovery and beyond,” he said. “But at times wolves will impact populations and keep them down in some areas.”
He promised more research and monitoring on the region’s big game and said sportsmen will continue to be key in providing some of that information through observations reporting and volunteering for surveys.
“It’s been pretty lonely out there (for wildlife managers) in the wolf debate,” he said.
Last year, when the agency made the controversial $76,500 decision to use helicopter gunners to eliminate the cattle-killing Wedge Pack in northern Stevens County, the public perception in Olympia appeared lopsided, he said.
The Washington governor’s office received 12,000 emails in 24 hours from organized pro-wolf groups opposed to killing wolves, he said, noting that only one sportsmen’s group sent a letter to the governor’s office supporting the management action.