Ranchers in northeast Washington continue to see livestock losses due to attacks by wolves. One of the latest incidents involving the Togo pack prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to initiate lethal removal provisions as outlined in the Wolf Conservation Management Plan, but that action is now on hold due to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
On Aug. 20, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind authorized department staff to take lethal action in response to multiple confirmed livestock depredations by the pack since last November, including three confirmed incidents in the last 30 days.
Following terms of a court order earlier this year, WDFW issued the notice eight business hours before lethal action could occur. That eight-hour window provided time for environmental groups—The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Cascadia Wildlands (CW)—to file for and receive a temporary restraining order in Thurston County, WA, preventing any wolves from being killed.
Judge Chris Lanese granted the request, saying the plaintiffs’ complaint met the criteria for a temporary restraining order under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. The judge scheduled a hearing on a preliminary injunction to determine whether to replace the restraining order with a longer-lasting court order for Aug. 31. In announcing his decision, Lanese specified that the ruling applied only to the Togo lethal removal decision.
The lawsuit asserts that the WDFW kill order relied on faulty protocol and failed to undergo required environmental analysis.
Commenting in a press release, on behalf of CBD, Amaroq Weiss, the Center’s West Coast wolf advocate, said, “It’s outrageous that Washington wildlife officials want to kill more wolves from the state’s small and recovering wolf population. Washingtonians overwhelmingly want wolves recovered, and current science says that killing wolves to prevent conflict is counterproductive. This isn’t the Old West anymore.”
According to WDFW, the Togo pack is one of 22 wolf packs and a minimum of 122 wolves documented in the state as of March 2018. Annual surveys have shown the population growing at a rate of 30 percent each year.
Speaking in favor of WDFW’s decision, Washington Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Sara Ryan told WLJ, “The Washington Cattlemen’s Association appreciates WDFW applying the Wolf Plan and Protocol to change pack behavior by imposing lethal action on the wolves to provide producers who have suffered multiple depredations some relief from the Togo pack.”
Asked to comment on a theory that the continued depredations and growing wolf populations might be an argument to remove the wolf from endangered status in Washington, Ryan said, “We truly wish that down listing was that sensible, but the number or frequency of wolf depredations on livestock is not part of the criteria for recovery or delisting of wolves in the Washington State Wolf Plan or in the federal listing in the western two-thirds of the state.”
Washington has unique challenges in managing wolves because protection status is not uniform across the state. Gray wolves are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state, but are federally delisted in the eastern third of the state. Under the Washington state rule, gray wolves are listed as endangered statewide.
Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau, responded to the lawsuit, telling WLJ, “As always they [CBE and CW] have distorted the truth to their advantage. For instance, they note that the department wants to shoot the collared male wolf. The reality is neither the department nor a number of local ranchers want that to happen since that is the only trackable wolf in the Togo pack.”
Davis added, “This comes as no surprise. We have been concerned all year that ranchers would have no meaningful tool to provide relief from wolves habituated to killing livestock. With this latest injunction, our concerns have been confirmed.”
Washington State Rep. Joel Kretz (R), who is also a rancher in the northeast part of the state, has been following the issues concerning wolf populations and livestock depredations for many years. Earlier this year he introduced legislation that would allow relocating wolves within the state. To his surprise, the bill passed overwhelming in the House. Asked last week what the outcome was on the state Senate side, Kretz said the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Kevin Van De Wege (D) representing the Olympic Peninsula, wouldn’t hold a hearing on the bill.
“The wolves’ popularity increases the farther away you are from them—nobody that has them wants them,” Kretz said.
On the latest lawsuit to stop lethal action against wolves, Kretz said it is something many groups have been trying to avoid. He explained that farmers, ranchers, hunters and some state-level environmental groups have stepped up and worked for solutions, trying to find a way to have wolves along with thriving ranches and rural communities. “That has kind of been the goal, and we’ve made a lot of progress,” Kretz said. He added that the state environmental groups that have been part of wolf management discussions conceded that if non-lethal deterrents don’t work, science has shown that there are times you need to remove wolves. “They have conceded that, which was a brave move on their part, and now we have someone from Petaluma, CA [one of CBD’s office locations] essentially dictating how Washington state manages wolves.”
Kretz said CBD and CW were welcome to sit at the table during wolf management discussions but declined involvement—until now. They waited until the end, Kretz said. “They have done nothing whatsoever to find solutions. Then they wait until this happens [wolf kill authorization] and they sue.”
Kretz expressed dismay at the judge’s decision, explaining that the environmental groups “found a liberal judge in Thurston County that has no skin in the game—and here we are.”
Understandably, livestock producers are frustrated at their personal inability to protect herds when non-lethal deterrents don’t work, and the restrictions on WDFW to help. Kretz said he has worked with producers to be patient, explaining to them, “We’re working on it. We’re making progress. Is it fast enough? No. But you’ve got to trust me.” With the latest developments, Kretz told WLJ, “I don’t believe I can tell them that anymore.”
In the meantime, Donny Martorello, WDFW wolf policy lead, said in a press release that WDFW staff would continue to work with livestock producers to deploy non-lethal deterrents to help protect their cattle. — Rae Price, WLJ editor