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WA: Agency ponders wolf relocation plan

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official says strategy could lead to quicker delisting

By Eric Barker of the Tribune

ASOTIN — A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official told Asotin County commissioners Monday there may be a different and perhaps quicker path to changing the protected status of wolves in the state other than the animals meeting thresholds laid out in a 2011 recovery plan.

Steve Pozzanghera, director of the department’s Eastern Region, said the agency is gearing up to do a periodic status review of gray wolves that may lead to a recommendation that the animals be reclassified under state law. Pozzanghera also said the agency is looking at the possibility of moving wolves from the eastern half of the state to the vast Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast Recovery Zone, where there are currently no documented packs that have reproduced — known as breeding pairs.

Wolves in Washington are listed as endangered by state law. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, wolves are listed as endangered in the eastern two-thirds of the state, but they have been delisted in the eastern third of the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering delisting wolves throughout the lower 48 states.

According to the latest Washington wolf survey, there are 126 individual wolves and 27 packs in Washington. Of the 27 packs, 15 successfully reproduced last year.

The state’s wolf management plan sets the wolf recovery threshold, at which delisting can occur, at 15 successful breeding pairs of wolves statewide for three consecutive years, with at least four successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years in each of the three recovery zones. The Eastern Recovery Zone is meeting that criteria, and the Northern Cascades Zone is close. But in the third zone, the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast, there are no documented breeding pairs and just one pack.

Pozzanghera said the status review has been warmly received by many counties in the Eastern Region because it is likely the process could lead to a delisting or downlisting recommendation long before wolves reach the downlisting criteria on the west side of the state.

According to the state’s wolf management plan, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is required to conduct a status review of state listed species every five years. Such a review has never been completed for wolves.

“The department has been out of compliance with this requirement,” he said.

Pozzanghera said a recommendation to change the endangered listing can be made only on the basis of a species’ biological status and not on social or economic factors. Biological status takes into consideration a wide range of data points, such as the number and distribution of wolves, their reproductive success and the health of the prey base. The review will include modeling of how the wolf population is expected to grow in the future, and it will be subject to peer review.

The process is expected to take about a year to complete, and it is possible the review will find endangered status is no longer warranted. Endangered means a species is considered seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the state.

Pozzanghera said some outside experts, likely from universities, will be used both for peer review and to help with the modeling. Commissioners cautioned Pozzanghera to strive for balance when choosing which experts to consult.

“I would like to see the experts vetted,” Commissioner Jim Jeffords said. “Are they truly objective? Are they going to look at the data objectively?”

Commission chairman Brian Shinn asked Pozzanghera to make sure if wolves are delisted that it is done in a way that doesn’t lead to them being relisted, either by the state or federal government, at a later date. Shinn also said the status review should consider not just wildlife but the human population as well.

Jay Holzmiller, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Commission from Anatone, said he differs with the department and believes wolves may reach recovery criteria in the state wolf management plan quicker that the wildlife mangers think. Holzmiller cited new work by a University of Washington professor that could document more wolves in the state than was done under the last annual survey. He called it a game changer.

“I think we are badly undercounting,” he said.

Holzmiller said if wolves are not reclassified and populations continue to expand the effects on elk and livestock will also grow.

“Once ungulate populations crash, there will be more pressure on domestic animals,” he said. “(Wolves) are not going to become vegans.”

Stan Wilson, of the Asotin County Sportsmen’s Association, recommended that the department also pursue moving wolves from east to west to speed meeting of recovery goals.

“Get on with it,” Wilson said. “It’s killing the people up north, and we are getting there, too.”