Legislation attempts to find middle ground for ranchers, wolves to coexist
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Ranchers from across the state came to Olympia Jan. 29 to meet with their legislators and address wolves and other issues vital to their livelihoods.
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Parks had four pieces of wolf-related legislation on its agenda, and a couple of dozen cattlemen sat in on the public hearing.
Tyler Cox, who raises cattle in Walla Walla County, was one who brought testimony to the hearing. After listening to the merits of ranchers killing predators or being reimbursed for livestock losses, Cox said: "We don't want payment. We don't want to kill wolves. We want to sell calves."
His situation is complicated, he said, by the pack that roams his southeast corner of the state and dens just across the state line in Oregon.
"The wolves have dual citizenship," he said. "There's no clear answer when I have trouble with an Oregon wolf in Washington."
The number of wolves in the state has grown dramatically in the past year. Dave Ware, game division manager at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the legislators the number of packs has grown from five in 2011 to eight in 2012, with three additional unconfirmed packs. The total number of wolves has grown from 27 to at least 51, and possibly as many as 101.
The state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan provides compensation for animals killed by wolf predation. Last year, the state paid $1,295 for a calf and $300 for a sheep that were killed.
However, some ranchers, including those most impacted by wolves, have refused to apply for compensation, because they see it as approving of the way wolves are managed.
Ware compared that with compensation paid in other states: $270,000 in Idaho, $96,000 in Montana and $82,000 in Wyoming. When Washington developed its management plan, it estimated $400,000 a year.
Two Senate bills address funding for compensation:
* SB5079 would establish a compensation program of $50,000 from the state's general fund. Bill sponsor Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said that mechanism would spread the burden across the state, since wolf management and recovery are of statewide interest.
* SB5193, sponsored by Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, would tap the State Wildlife Account for the same amount. It would also add the gray wolf to the list of big game species.
Smith said he raises cattle in the middle of three confirmed packs. His intentions are "not to attack wildlife, but to recognize we've reached equilibrium for our predators."
Brad Miller, from Ferry County, was one of four county commissioners from Eastern Washington who testified. He said it was important to him to protect the economy of his county.
"Bringing in predators is devastating to ranchers," he said. "The plan didn't anticipate so many wolves in the same location."
Smith also introduced two bills addressing the authority for lethal removal:
* SB5187 would authorize livestock owners, their family members or their employees to kill wolves attacking the owner's livestock. "If I interfered with an attack on my dogs or horses, I'd be guilty of a felony," Smith said. "We live in the environment. It's our God-given right to protect our lives and property."
* SB5188 would authorize county legislative bodies to declare an imminent threat to livestock under specific conditions. The county then could authorize the sheriff or another county agent to lethally remove wolves. The sheriff already has the duty to protect, Smith said, and this bill would clarify county authority.