The folks in Washington state are finally coming to grips with the reality of having wolves in their midst. While at first the notion seemed to carry with it a bit of romance -- the wolves returning to the land after a long absence -- now come the facts of the matter.
Wolves are self-reliant in every sense. As predators, they go where the food is. If an elk shows up, it becomes the day's meal. Likewise with other mammals such as cattle or sheep. When one or several wolves discover the availability of livestock in a grazing area or on a ranch, they will take full advantage of it.
That's not a criticism; it's just the way it is. A wolf's got to eat what a wolf's got to eat.
State wildlife managers now understand that. The Wedge Pack in northeastern Washington had repeatedly attacked cattle belonging to the Diamond M Ranch. The wolves ate well. About 40 calves were missing after last year's grazing season, the owners estimated.
Now wildlife managers are recognizing that some wolves can be a chronic problem. On average about 20 percent of all wolves can be a problem, preying on cattle and other livestock, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator Mike Jiminez says. The remainder will be fine, sticking to a diet of wildlife.
When wolves turn to livestock, they must quickly be killed, managers now say. That's what they ultimately had to do with the Wedge Pack.
As Washington's wolf population grows -- it jumped from 27 to more than 51 in a single year -- managers will be called on to control wolves that prey on livestock and pets. Now, after a couple of years of experience, they seem ready to recognize when a wolf or its pack is a problem.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal group of Washingtonians appears to be unwilling to accept the reality of wolves. Even after managers had tried everything they could to avoid killing the Wedge Pack wolves, the wolf supporters hollered when the managers did the only thing they could -- kill the wolves.
Relocating wolves is not an option, the managers said. That just moves a problem from one area to another.
Which it too bad, because there's a lot to like about a proposal Washington state Rep. Joel Kretz is offering. He would like to see problem wolves moved to Western Washington, where many of their biggest fans live.
"The pro-wolf people typically love them as long as they don't have to deal with them," Kretz said. "They're criticizing the department, they're personally criticizing the rancher when they absolutely don't know a damn thing (about) what they're talking about."
That about sums it up. This newspaper has advocated two steps for the state Fish and Wildlife managers to take.
The first is to rewrite the state wolf management plan, which underestimated the rate of wolf population growth that would occur and the impact it would have. That the population is nearly doubling each year was not anticipated, although the population growth in Idaho, Montana and elsewhere was similarly spectacular. A more realistic management plan would have predicted that growth and allowed managers to get rid of problem wolves instead of spending months trying to avoid the inevitable.
Second, we have advocated getting all sides of the issue together. The state is now doing that, convening meetings across the state to talk about the experience of managing wolves and how best to do it.
If they carry out those two steps, they won't have to worry about shipping problem wolves to Seattle, Olympia or any other wolf-loving hot spot.