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WA: Eastern Washington wolves not hurting numbers of deer, elk, similar wildlife, report says

There have been numerous conflicts between endangered wolves and livestock in recent years, and the state has killed 18 problem wolves since 2012, drawing sharp criticism from environmental groups.

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
The Associated Press

The growing population of wolves in Eastern Washington state does not appear to be hurting the populations of deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep, according to a report issued last week by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The agency in 2015-2017 studied the populations of those animals, known as ungulates, that are hunted by wolves and found that none “in this assessment appear to show clear signs of being limited by predation,” the report concluded.

Gray wolves were hunted to extinction in Washington in the early 20th century. But the animals started migrating into the state in the early 2000s from Idaho and Canada. The first wolf pack was documented by the department in 2008.

At the end of 2016, the state estimated there were a minimum of 115 wolves, 20 packs and 10 successful breeding pairs in the state. All of the documented wolf packs are east of the Cascade Range.

There have been numerous conflicts between wolves and livestock in recent years, and the state has killed 18 problem wolves since 2012, drawing sharp criticism from environmental groups.

Wolves are listed as endangered by the state in the eastern third of Washington and have federal endangered-species protection in the western two-thirds of the state.

The study used population estimates obtained from aerial surveys, plus the number of ungulates harvested by hunters, the agency said. State officials have also launched a more comprehensive, multiyear study of the impact of wolves on ungulates.

The agency defined an at-risk ungulate population as one that falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years, or one in which the harvest decreases by 25 percent below the 10-year average harvest rate for two consecutive years.

The report showed that initial fears that wolves would wipe out wild ungulates were unfounded, said Amaroq Weiss, who works on wolf-recovery issues for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit group that focuses on protecting endangered species.

“Any hue and cry over negative predation impacts on elk herds in Washington with the return of wolves to the state is without merit,” she said. “The majority of mortality to elk in the state is human-caused.”

Sarah Ryan, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said ranchers support healthy populations of wild animals for wolves to hunt.

“We need a robust population of ungulates so wolves will have something to snack on beyond cattle,” Ryan said, adding that she has not seen the study.

Washington state’s ungulate populations also include mountain goats and pronghorn, but they don’t usually live where the state’s wolves hunt.

Oregon weighs changes

In Oregon, bounty hunters wiped out wolves 70 years ago. The state now has an estimated wolf population of 112, and officials have been considering a new wolf-management plan.

But the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission decided Friday, after an hour of testimony, to delay a decision on a plan that could eventually open the door to a wolf hunt, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Environmentalists say Oregon’s wolf population can’t sustain hunting.

“We still have a recovery program that’s very much in its infancy,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered-species coordinator for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, “and I think it requires a conservative approach.”

Hunters and ranchers say Oregon’s proposed plan doesn’t do enough to stop wolf attacks on livestock.

Todd Nash, a rancher near Enterprise in the northeastern part of the state, also said not every rancher receives support from a state compensation fund to help alleviate what it costs ranchers to protect livestock or absorb losses from what they say are wolf kills.

“We had a number of cattle that were unconfirmed (wolf kills),” he said. “We had a number of cattle that weren’t confirmed.”

Oregon wildlife officials have killed or authorized the killing of 14 wolves since 2009, including 10 in the past two years. Twelve more have been poached, including eight since 2015, according to state wildlife officials.

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