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.