For the first time in over 40 years, gray wolves in eastern Washington may soon lose some protections under state law that make it legally more difficult for people to kill them.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced on Thursday it was seeking public input through Aug. 16 on relaxing the classification of the wolves from “endangered” to “sensitive.” Wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington would remain covered by the federal Endangered Species Act, with their protections largely unchanged.
A final decision on whether to alter the state policy could come in October.
Julia Smith, Fish and Wildlife’s wolf policy lead, said wolves in the state have made “significant progress” toward recovery since they were listed as endangered in 1980.
The draft reclassification recommendation Fish and Wildlife has put forward, she said in a news release, reflects these gains and “most accurately describes the current status of wolves in Washington, while also recognizing that wolves are not yet established in western Washington.”
But Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement called the department’s recommendation “infuriating“ and “misguided“ and said it “flies in the face of science, the law and the state’s own wolf recovery plan.”
Ressler added by phone that her group, a conservation organization, suspects Fish and Wildlife wants to “loosen up the requirements” for when the agency can kill wolves that have conflicts with livestock. She went on to cast doubt on the effectiveness of that approach.
Wolf management has long been controversial in Washington.
Conservation groups have sought to protect the apex predators, which, according to Fish and Wildlife, “were essentially eliminated as a breeding species” in the state by the 1930s. Many ranchers, meanwhile, complain that state policy is failing them when it comes to the animals preying on cattle.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association has pushed to have protections on the species rolled back. The group supported a failed bill in this year’s legislative session that would have cleared the way for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage gray wolves as if they are not endangered under state law in counties where the animals reach certain population thresholds.
In pushing for these and other changes, the cattlemen point to the rising number of wolves in the state.
According to Fish and Wildlife, the wolf population in Washington has increased for 14 consecutive years since 2008. As of the end of last year, there were 216 wolves in 37 packs with at least 26 successful breeding pairs in Washington. But the Center for Biological Diversity says the state has seen an average of one to four illegal wolf killings each year over the past decade and nine unlawful killings in 2022.
In state law, “endangered” means a species is “seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the state.” The “sensitive” classification means a species is “vulnerable or declining and is likely to become endangered or threatened in a significant portion of its range within the state without cooperative management or removal of threats.”
If the updated policy is adopted, gray wolves would still be protected from hunting, though the penalties would be lower. State law dictates that hunting or killing an endangered species can result in up to a $5,000 fine and one year in jail. Possible punishment for illegally hunting or killing a species in the sensitive category is up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The weakened protections could change how ranchers manage conflicts between wolves and cattle.
In general, livestock owners are restricted from using deadly measures against wolves. But Fish and Wildlife may issue permits to kill the animals in certain circumstances where the agency believes that the state lacks the resources needed to control them. Under the proposed changes, livestock owners would have more access to permits to use lethal options if conflicts arise.
The department argues that the current state wolf plan relies on data from other states. Their recommendation for reclassifying the animals comes from a new model – the first of its kind – that uses data from Washington’s own wolf population. The new model shows long-term survival of the species.
Fish and Wildlife reviews classifications for species’ protections every five years. The public can submit written comments on the new gray wolf plan at: publicinput.com/psr-gray-wolf
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