Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2011 11:00 AM
Dan Wheat/Capital Press
Bighorn sheep stand on cliffs above the Columbia River between Vantage and Crescent Bar, Wash., on Aug. 4. They are prey of the gray wolf.
Ranchers object to counting cattle land as wolf habitat
By DAN WHEAT
Washington's proposed wolf management plan is "deceptive and deceitful" and sets a stage of conflict with livestock producers and hunters, the head of the Washington Cattlemen's Association says.
Jack Field, association executive vice president, said he told the state Fish and Wildlife Commission that and asked commissioners to revise the plan.
As a member of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Wolf Working Group drafting the plan for the past three years, Field said he tried to work with the department but is frustrated by a final product that lacks common sense.
"It's not (deceptive and deceitful)," said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman. "We've been upfront and transparent about this plan from day one with the working group and the public."
Department staff presented the plan to commissioners on Aug. 4. Field was among 25 people that were allowed three minutes each to offer public comment.
Livestock producers and hunters need to make their voices of opposition heard at remaining public meetings and as much as possible before the commission is scheduled to act Dec. 2 and 3, Field said the next day.
Public meetings are tentatively scheduled for Aug. 29 in Ellensburg and Oct. 6 and Nov. 3 in Olympia.
The plan protects gray wolves until their population reaches 15 breeding pairs for three years. Then state delisting and limited hunting may be considered.
Early on the department said cattle and sheep grazing land would not be counted in wolf habitat because they are not compatible, but in drafting the plan cattle acreage was counted as habitat, Field said.
Commissioner Conrad Mahnken, a retired fisheries biologist, noted that incongruity, Field said.
Luers said cattle grazing land was not included per se but that land too close to sheep and to human population centers was kept out.
Wolves are habitat generalists and only need something to eat and people to leave them alone, she said. The department looked at density of forest and elk and location of human population and sheep in determining habitat, she said.
Commissioners also asked how the department was counting 26,700 square miles of wolf habitat, virtually the same as Idaho and Montana, which have far smaller human populations, Field said.
Michigan has 3 million more people and 500 more wolves than Washington and half the wolf habitat and its plan works relatively well, Luers said.
Commissioners questioned if 15 breeding pairs are enough to establish a viable wolf population, Field said. The plan contains no wolf population cap, he said. It only says the department may consider limited hunting -- it doesn't require it -- when 15 breeding pairs have been sustained for three years, he said. It would take another year to get any hunting approved, he said.
A breeding pair means 14 wolves, so 15 pairs equals 210 wolves, he said. At a 24 percent growth rate the department considers acceptable, there could be 500 wolves consuming 5,275 elk or 71 percent of the annual allowable elk hunter harvest by the time wolf hunting is allowed, Field said.
"The department says wolves will only kill sick and weak elk, but I don't buy that and I hope sportsmen don't either," Field said. "If wolves take more elk than the department's population objectives, then hunter harvest will have to go down."
The department had said shooting wolves would be a management tool, but now says such lethal takes can't be used in the western two-thirds of the state where the gray wolf remains listed as a federally endangered species, Field said. There's no way to remove wolves there that chronically depredate livestock, he said.
"That's a slap in the face to stakeholders (who worked on the plan) because it says there will be no management and cross your fingers," Field said.
The department talks about relocating problem wolves but that requires federal review, he said.
The department has always said it can't vary from federal law in areas of federal listing, Luers said. The plan now allows lethal take of wolves caught attacking livestock in the eastern part of the state, she said.
Some people in the working group didn't like that being allowed and think there should be far more than 15 breeding pair, Luers said.
"We've got it (criticism and opposition) coming from both sides and we fully expect that," she said. "Jack has been a valuable member of the group, representing an industry with a lot at stake. He helped us address some management tools. People need to read the plan."