By PHIL ANDERSON
For the Capital Press
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently conducted three well-attended meetings in Northeast Washington to discuss wolf management with ranchers and other residents of the communities that are on the front line of wolf recovery in our state.
Gray wolves are listed by the state as an endangered species, and wolf recovery is the fundamental goal of the state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. So far, wolves are recovering rapidly. Washington's wolf population nearly doubled in 2012, and these numbers will continue to grow.
But long term, sustainable wolf recovery won't succeed unless the state -- and WDFW -- can address the legitimate concerns of livestock operators and the people who live in rural areas where wolves are recolonizing, and the impacts on game animals such as deer, elk and moose.
We heard several clear messages during our meetings in Colville, Cusick and Okanogan.
Many residents do not want wolves near their communities. Rural residents are genuinely afraid for their children, pets and livestock. Many families are changing their behavior because of those fears.
People are concerned that wolf numbers, and therefore conflicts, will become excessive in northeast Washington long before wolves populate other areas of the state.
Many residents want an aggressive response by the state when problems occur and said they would take matters into their own hands, if necessary, to protect their safety and property.
Ranchers indicated that they are generally willing to try to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts, but they are skeptical that nonlethal tools will keep wolves from attacking their animals.
Finally, many said they don't think the state is doing enough to prevent and address local problems. Some residents say they have more confidence in local governments and would like more say in how wolves are managed at that level.
I'm writing this column to let people know that we heard those concerns, and we are addressing them.
We have expanded our wildlife conflict management program and stepped up efforts to work one-on-one with ranchers to prevent problems and respond to conflicts. Minimizing livestock losses is a key goal of our wolf plan, and we have conflict specialists stationed in Colville, the Blue Mountains and Ellensburg.
We support legislative efforts to further increase our capacity to manage wolves, such as by increasing the number of wolf-conflict specialists, contracting for assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services branch, and increasing funds to help ranchers prevent wolf-livestock conflict.
We are working cooperatively with ranchers and local leaders to prevent conflict, protect property, remove wolves when necessary, and compensate producers for livestock losses. WDFW is prepared to share costs with livestock operators for measures to keep wolves from preying on livestock.
In addition to these efforts, three ranching practices are critical to minimizing wolf-livestock conflict:
* Removing attractants to wolves. Cleaning up carcasses and "bone piles" helps keep wolves from hanging around pastures containing livestock and becoming habituated to those animals as a food source.
* Moving weakened animals off the range. Like all predators, wolves are attracted to more susceptible prey. Moving sick and injured animals to protected areas is a common practice and must continue.
* Showing a human presence. Wolves prefer to stay away from humans, because they see us as dangerous. Human hazing of wolves, such as with range riders on horseback or ATVs, can be very effective.
When prevention efforts aren't enough, we plan to follow advice from wolf experts to move quickly to remove wolves that have clearly killed livestock. These are never easy decisions, but the reality is that we will sometimes be forced to kill problem wolves to ensure the species' long-term recovery. As we have in the past, we will ensure our efforts are consistent with state and federal laws and guidelines.
We are committed to working closely with local government officials and recently accepted their invitation to join a committee to address wolf management issues in Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.
We understand the frustration felt by many rural residents over the protections being extended to wolves while they recolonize our state. Our goal is to manage wolves so that recovery can occur without placing an undue burden on rural communities. But we cannot succeed without the public's help.
For assistance with measures to prevent conflicts, please contact the nearest WDFW office. We have regional and district offices throughout Eastern Washington. Also, you can call our hotline at 1-877-933-9847 or use our website -- www.wdfw.wa.gov -- to report wolf sightings or suspected depredations.
Phil Anderson is the director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.