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How Many Wolves Are Enough In Washington State?


Washington state officials are developing a wolf management plan for the day wolves lope into their state. Photo by Tracy Brooks/Mission Wolf / USFWS.

Wolves have made a remarkable comeback in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since a recovery plan for the species was launched in the mid-1990s. So successful has that program been that, when coupled with growing wolf populations in northwestern Montana and southern British Columbia, Washington state officials are concerned that the predators soon will find their way into their state. As a result, officials there are developing a management plan. But how many wolves are enough wolves?

Wolves were classified as an endangered species across the state of Washington by the federal government in 1973 and by the state government in 1980. In 2009 the predators were delisted under federal law for the eastern third of Washington, though they remain listed as endangered in the western two-thirds of the state. Well aware that wolves likely will begin to spread across their state, Washington officials are drawing up a management plan that will allow wolves to be delisted as an endangered species statewide...but prevent them from growing too robustly in number.

While the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, under a draft environmental impact statement, is proposing a statewide cap at 15 breeding pairs, the National Parks Conservation Association believes that number is too low. And the organization would like to see the state allow for wolves to roam the Washington peninsula and Olympic National Park.

Wolves are highly controversial animals in the West, where ranchers worry about predation on their livestock and where there are few areas that can offer the millions of acres of public lands where they can roam naturally. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which covers some 18 million acres, is one of the few landscapes capable of providing intact home ranges for packs of wolves. Since the predators were returned to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, the population has grown to more than 100 individuals.

Those animals have proven to be an economic diamond, as it's been estimated that the park and its gateway communities see more than $35 million a year in revenues related to wolf-watching in the park.

The draft management plan currently under review in Washington contains four alternatives; one proposes a cap of six breeding pairs, another of 12 breeding pairs, the preferred alternative cap of 15 breeding pairs, and an alternative that would oppose wolf recovery in the state.

The draft plan, which has been the focus of a series of public meetings this fall, calls for a variety of compensation and wolf control measures to ensure recovery of the species in the state.

Human mortality is the single most important factor influencing recovery of wolves. As such, conserving wolves in Washington and meeting the delisting criteria will necessitate social tolerance for wolves on both public and private lands. It is unusual to include lethal management strategies in a plan for recovery of a listed species. However, to build public tolerance for wolves, a range of proactive, non-lethal, and lethal management options, as well as compensation, are outlined in the four alternatives to address wolf-livestock conflicts. Programs to compensate livestock producers for wolf-caused losses of livestock assist wolf recovery efforts by shifting some of the economic burden associated with wolf restoration away from producers, thereby increasing overall tolerance for the species. Lethal control of wolves may be necessary to resolve repeated wolf livestock conflicts and would be performed to remove problem animals that jeopardize public tolerance for overall wolf recovery. Implementation of management options that include lethal control would be based on the status of wolves to ensure that conservation/recovery objectives are met; and the four alternatives vary on when these management options become available.

The agency's preferred alternative calls for 15 breeding pairs of wolves in three recovery areas -- eastern Washington, the Northern Cascades, and the Southern Cascades/Northwest Coast areas of the state. NPCA officials believe the state is being too conservative with its proposal.

" ... the National Parks Conservation Association urges the agency to consider aiming for more than 15 breeding pairs, which is currently favored in the plan, in order to ensure the viability and recovery of this state-endangered species," said David Graves, NPCA's Northwest field representative. “NPCA also recommends that the plan include translocation of wolves to the Olympic Peninsula, which offers superb habitat and the low possibility of wolf and human conflict. Scientists believe the return of the gray wolf to the peninsula will lead to cleaner water and healthier ungulate populations.

“Restoring critical predator-prey relationships will greatly enhance the state’s ecosystem and increase tourism dollars for local economies," added Mr. Graves. "A study from the University of Montana found that Yellowstone’s gateway communities have received more than $35 million a year from wolf-related tourism. Similar tourism related businesses might be possible in Washington State."

Washington state officials hope to finalize the plan next year.


Well I guess since wolves eat what they kill and we need them so badly then we also must need the Hannibal Lechter types as well perhaps we should try to repopulate them in suburbia America. Speaking as someone who has had wolves forcfully planted all around my back yard into a perfectly healthy ecosystem (without wolves) I wounder how the people who think this is a good idea would feel if I was planting Hannibals in their back yard. Sound extreme we are talking about the exact same thing vicious killers with no morals, remorse, or ability to reason. So now people actually have the gaul to brag about the wonders wolves have done for Yellowstones ecosystem (I guess taking the worlds largest healthiest elk herd to near extintion is pretty awsome right?) and say the 35 million is great for the economy as the barbarians flock in to see this horrific creature make me wonder how much the romans made off of the gladiators bet it wasn't 35 mil guess they picked the wrong animal to do their killing. But never fear cuz we got money set aside for damages I mean really what were those cows worth how muh were those sheep worth I mean really how muchis your kid worth!! Take your money and choke on it I'll take my bullets and deposit them in a wolf bank.

Maybe a new livestock specie that could be introduced as a natural wolf inhibitor would be a more natural balance.

People may conclude no, but they don't have any science to back it up.

Once again they play which ever side of the argument that suits them at any given time. They argue that political boundaries do not count in federal issues, then want to separate them out when talking state management. 150 wolves in WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, UT is going to create a meta population of at least 1000 wolves spread across the DPS. That is MORE than adequate by any scientific perspective. You may want to look up David Mech testimony as he stated this in court.

You people can't have it both ways, even if you want to.

...wolves will not drive the populations down. If it will help manage and cause the deer and elk to move across the state. Wolves would help the Ecosystem.

The only thing bringing the wolves back to the state of Washington will do is drive the deer and elk populations down even more. No good can come from adding another predator to the list.

As Jasime noted, Kurt's repeated use of the term "cap" is highly misleading. The WDFW preferred alternative sets a minimum of 15 successful breeding pairs for 3 consecutive years for delisting, corresponding to a minimum population of 75 to 150 wolves. It specifies no "cap", but WDFW verbally floated a "target" of 300 to 500 wolves in a recent public meeting.

This proposal is now open for public comment, and is also being submitted through Univ. of Washington for blind scientific review (just as a peer-reviewed science journal article would be). It appears there is no scientific consensus on the minimum sustainable wolf population, nor on the ecological effects of elk in Olympic NP, nor on desired target elk population. The plan may have to be deferred until scientific consensus develops on these key questions. (Without solid science, its doubtful the plan could survive the inevitable legal challenges... from both sides.)

WDFW developed this EIS under SEPA (State Environ. Prot. Act). State wildlife laws do not apply within National Parks. Wolves cannot be reintroduced to Olympic NP without the concurrance of the NPS, and that will require a completely separate NEPA EIS. USFWS is still developing science and policy regarding Northwest wolf population, declines to even comment on this WDFW wolf EIS, so is not ready to participate in such an NPS EIS. Eight sovereign tribes must also concur (Quinault Indian Nation and Makah are major landowners and wildlife managers; 6 other tribes also hold traditional elk hunting rights within Olympic NP and, based on past examples, each may separately demand years of funding to "study the issue" before approving).

So it appears to this observer that any action to reintroduce wolves into Olympic remains at least a decade away, likely longer.

There was a well-attended WA wolf plan meeting Nov. 5th on the Olympic Penisula:

I would like to see the population recover to a point where "management" is unnecessary. Any aspect of the natural world that requires "management" means that it is not doing well and won't sustain itself in the long run.

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