OLYMPIA — A bill intended to bring relief to wolf-plagued ranchers in northeast Washington is running into criticism for being toothless and a tactical mistake.
The skepticism may prove fatal to House Bill 2107, which passed the Democratic-controlled House unanimously, but stalled in the GOP-led Senate.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Republican Rep. Joel Kretz, whose 7th District has three-fourths of the state’s wolf packs, said Friday he hopes the bill will regain momentum, especially among ranchers.
“It comes down to the grassroots. Do they want it or not?” he said.
HB 2107 would direct the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to re-evaluate by mid-2017 the state’s recovery goals and policies on lethal control.
The 7th District’s senator, Republican Brian Dansel, said ranchers can’t wait two years for WDFW to rethink wolf recovery.
“That bill wouldn’t be productive for ranchers,” he said. “I don’t think it can just be a study bill.”
The bill falls short of proposals by Kretz to de-list wolves in the eastern one-third of the state or transfer some to Western Washington to hasten recovery.
But Kretz said he hopes the review will speed up the day wolves are no longer a protected species in Eastern Washington, leading to wolf management similar to Idaho. “I guess we can accept the status quo, or we can move forward. I think this moves us forward.”
Washington’s wolf population grew by 30 percent in 2014, but the state measures success by distribution and the increase in breeding pairs. By those measurements, the state’s progress toward recovery has been slow.
The animals remain concentrated in Kretz’s and Dansel’s district, and WDFW hasn’t documented an increase in breeding pairs since 2012.
Meanwhile, ranchers report more livestock-wolf conflicts.
The bill had support from the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and the Washington Farm Bureau. Environmental groups were cool toward reopening the wolf plan, but Democrats green-lighted the legislation after provisions were added to subject WDFW’s revisions to more outside review.
Kretz said he thought the bill would cruise through the Senate, which had passed a similar bill. “Everybody thought it was on auto pilot,” he said. “Nobody worked it, including me.”
As the end of the regular session drew near in late April, the Farm Bureau sent out an “action alert,” asking its members to urge senators to pass the bill. For now, the bill sits in the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.
Dansel cited the House vote as evidence the bill falls short of addressing wolf predation. Rather than wait until 2017 and the possibility of change, Dansel suggested holding out and trying again next year to de-list wolves in Eastern Washington.
“I think we have to go for something now to leverage our majority in the Senate,” Dansel said.
Said Kretz: “I’d love to see regional delisting. If you think you can get it through the House, have at it.”
Stevens County rancher Scott Nielsen, former president of the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association, said he worries that reopening the wolf plan will defuse the push to de-list wolves in his corner of the state.
“If we get that (HB 2107), I have an idea our lawmakers won’t do anything else,” he said.