Values clash, tempers flare as state weighs new management plan—and possible hunting season
By Jennifer Calfas
Washington state’s growing population of gray wolves is exposing deep divides among residents and testing civility among its top decision makers.
And managing the animals is about to get more complicated, as the state begins drawing up a new wolf-management plan and weighing whether to establish a hunting season.
The wolves, nearly nonexistent in the northwestern state for almost a century, have grown in numbers about 28% each year since 2008, about a decade after they were introduced to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. By late last year, Washington had at least 126 wolves and 27 packs.
The wolves’ resurgence has brought cheers from conservationists, who view them as symbolic, charismatic creatures that can improve the state’s ecosystems and jeers from ranchers and livestock owners, who see them as killers that threaten their livelihoods.
Wolves in Washington
The gray wolf population re-emerged in Washington state in 2008 and each year since has grown about 28%.
Now, with wolves expected to reach their targeted recovery levels in a few years, the debate over how to manage the population is intensifying. Officials recently canceled three public meetings about wolves after threats of violence and disruption.
“This is probably the biggest story for Washington, and I won’t do it justice describing it,” said Donny Martorello, the wolf policy lead for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There is such a culture divide when it comes to wolves.”
Wolves were largely eradicated across the western U.S. over the course of the 20th century, targeted by government agencies and hunted by ranchers and other private citizens. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated some wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, leading to their resurgence in the West.
In response, states have adopted new management strategies, with Idaho, Montana and Wyoming opening hunting seasons.
But efforts in Washington have been clouded by the intense emotions of stakeholders and the public. Tensions recently have risen after a string of decisions from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to kill a number of wolves responsible for the deaths or injury of cattle and livestock.
The conflict is centered in Ferry County—in the northeastern part of the state, where most of Washington’s wolf population roams. Fish and Wildlife staff this year killed nine wolves in Ferry County—including the last of a pack that killed or injured 29 livestock in the county.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently asked the state Fish and Wildlife agency to reduce the need to kill wolves as a result of their preying on livestock, and instead increase the use of deterrents, which can include electric fencing or range riders to monitor cattle herds and other livestock. Officials have noted that killing the animals is a last resort.
Meanwhile, researchers are racing to understand the wolves’ effect on the ecosystem to better inform how to manage the population.
The wolf issue in Washington reflects a state with a range of values and livelihoods: from rural communities that carry on family ranching and farming traditions to communities including Seattle that model liberal causes for other cities in the U.S.
“When you boil it down, this is a people issue, not a wolf issue,” said Molly Linville, a cattle rancher who works with the state’s wildlife department. “If people’s beliefs and value systems weren’t involved, wolf management would be a cakewalk.”
At the forefront of the state’s wolf-management policy is a team of volunteers who make up a Wolf Advisory Group convened by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The group, formed in 2013, includes livestock producers, conservation-group leaders, hunters, a county commissioner from the northeastern part of the state and other state residents.
The group has recommended a number of management strategies, from hunting to nonlethal methods ranchers can use to deter the wolves.
In its early years, reaching a consensus was particularly difficult, said the wildlife department’s Mr. Martorello. The group’s members didn’t have the skills to make conversations productive. “We actually had probably made the conflict worse,” he recalled.
Members said their interactions were often acrimonious and unproductive. Neither side had much empathy for the other; some of conservationists said they would dismiss ranchers’ concerns, sometimes telling them to “just move their cows.”
Things were so bad the state brought in Francine Madden, executive director of the Center for Conservation Peacebuilding, an organization that resolves social conflict derived from wildlife issues.
Over three years, she helped the group understand the values of others without giving up their own ideals, members said. Ms. Madden said she noticed a shift when ranchers started advocating for conservationists, and vice versa.
“Francine, in a sense, put a metal detector at the door and stopped grenades from being rolled in,” said Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau, which represents farmers and ranchers. “She gave us tools for talking to each other.”
“I look back and I’m embarrassed actually at some of the things that came out of my mouth five, six, seven years ago, because I clearly didn’t understand the complexity of the issues,” said Diane Gallegos, executive director of Wolf Haven International, a wolf sanctuary.
But translating that understanding to the public is tough.
“It’s difficult to put all of that in a snapshot when you stand up as a sanctuary director and say, ‘I support lethal control as one of the tools, the tool of last resort,’ ” Ms. Gallegos said.
At the first of three webinars hosted by wildlife department officials to replace the canceled public meetings, Washingtonians asked about whether a potential hunting season could be implemented—a question the department and the Wolf Advisory Group now expect to shape the discourse.
“If you want to throw gas on the fire, then that’s the topic to bring up,” said Mr. Davis, an advisory group member.