SPOKANE (AP) — An Eastern Washington lawmaker told a legislative committee Thursday that wolves must be distributed more evenly across the state, even if some must be relocated.
Eleven of the 14 wolf packs in the state are located in the northeastern Washington district of Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. The packs have killed livestock and created conflicts with ranchers and other residents.
Kretz said his constituents cannot wait for the wolves to naturally disperse over the next decade.
“When you’ve got people having their whole lives destroyed, you can’t wait decades on bureaucratic processes,” Kretz testified. “We are going to do something.”
Kretz’s bill proposes to create a $1 million pilot program to move some wolves from northeastern Washington to other parts of the state to test how that concept works. It was one of several wolf-related measures heard in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources in Olympia.
Other bills would allow the state Fish and Wildlife Department to kill problem wolves more quickly; perform a study on how the state populations of elk and deer are surviving in the face of rising numbers of wolves; and permit wolves to be removed from government protections in some portions of the state but not others.
The committee heard testimony on the bills but did not vote on any of the measures.
Members of environmental groups testified against the bills.
“We do not accept the concept of regional delisting” of wolves from endangered species protections, said Dan Paul of The Humane Society. Environmentalists support wolves being listed across the entire state until the animals are declared recovered.
Fish and Wildlife estimates that at the end of 2013, there were at least 52 wolves in 13 packs roaming Eastern Washington.
Wildlife officials say the state’s best wolf habitat is the southern Cascade Mountains, where federal lands support more than 20,000 elk. Biologists believe wolves will naturally migrate to the area by 2022.
Kretz wants to speed the process and has introduced the bill requiring the Department of Fish and Wildlife to test the concept of relocating wolves to other parts of the state.
“There is an extreme, disproportionate impact on northeastern Washington,” Kretz said.
Last year he sponsored a bill to capture Eastern Washington wolves and transplant them to the districts of West Side legislators opposed to any controls on the predators.
Kretz said his new bill is serious and intended to speed up the dispersal of wolves, which in turn would hasten the removal of federal and state protections for the animals.
Under the state’s recovery plan, wolves will remain a protected species until at least 15 breeding pairs are documented across the state for three years. Wolves must be geographically spread so there are breeding pairs in Eastern Washington, north-central Washington and a big region that includes the southern Cascades and Western Washington.
State officials and environmental groups prefer that wolves migrate to new regions on their own. Wolf tracks have already been found northwest of Yakima and in Whitman County. Last spring, a photo of a wolf was taken in Klickitat County.
The debate over wolves illustrates a divide in the Pacific Northwest between rural areas and urban centers.
Rural residents contend their more liberal counterparts in cities don’t understand the realities of living among predators, including the danger to the public and livestock.
Advocates contend the state is the native habitat of wolves, and the animals have a positive impact on areas where elk would otherwise destroy grassland.
Wolves were killed off in Washington in the early 1900s. But earlier this century, they started to return, migrating from Idaho and British Columbia.
Last summer was difficult for ranchers in northeastern Washington. At least 33 sheep were killed or injured by wolves and a cow and calf were killed.
David Dashiell, a rancher near Hunters, estimated he has lost 300 sheep to wolves this winter.
“We can’t afford to wait until the whole state is recovered, or there won’t be any of us left,” he said.