OLYMPIA — Washington's new budget "discourages" the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife from shooting wolves from helicopters, a tactic the department relies on but that wolf advocates revile and ranchers view unenthusiastically.
Sen. Shelly Short, a Republican who represents wolf pack-saturated northeast Washington, said she supports the directive.
It stops short of banning helicopter flights, but does concede aerial killing strikes some as trophy hunting. It also prods Fish and Wildlife to try other ways to thin packs, such as waiting for wolves to return to carcasses, Short said.
"It doesn't create the same optics as a helicopter in the air," she said.
Fish and Wildlife routinely looks for wolf packs from a helicopter. More rarely, the department sets traps.
Since 2012, the department has removed about four wolves a year. Over the years, two wolves were shot from the ground and one was trapped and euthanized. In one case, the department shot near a carcass.
The department said Friday that helicopter flights will remain an option. Waiting by a carcass also will be a option.
"Looking to use ground methods first, with the use of a helicopter when needed, is consistent with input the department has heard from the livestock producer and environmental communities," Fish and Wildlife said in a written statement Friday.
The department's aerial searches have had mixed success. For the department to even try, at least one wolf must be wearing a radio collar to signal the pack's location.
Wolf advocates have criticized Fish and Wildlife for indiscriminately targeting wolves from the air, at times shooting a pack's breeding female.
The state's two-year budget allocates $954,000 to Fish and Wildlife for managing wolf-livestock conflicts in northeast Washington, while discouraging shooting wolves from helicopters.
"It means, 'You should try other things first,'" Short said.
"I just hope that it's workable," she said. "When wolves are a problem, they need to be removed."
Fish and Wildlife reported spending $41,779, including helicopter costs, to remove three wolves in the Wedge pack last year.
The department also used a helicopter to look for wolves in the Togo pack. The department blamed dense forest cover for the unsuccessful searches. The department says packs learn to hide from helicopters and the chances for removing wolves diminish with each fruitless flight.
Stevens County Cattlemen's Association President Scott Nielsen said helicopters should remain an option for Fish and Wildlife. "If completely stopped it, it would be bad," he said.
Trapping or shooting wolves as they return to carcasses, however, could be less expensive and more effective, especially in forests, Nielsen said.
"At the very least, we'd like to see it explored," he said. "I think we could be really, really effective without helicopters."
Conservation Northwest policy director Paula Swedeen said carcasses could allow Fish and Wildlife to more selectively remove wolves, avoiding killing breeding pairs and pups and leaving the pack structure intact.
Ground operations could spare packs the anxiety of being chased by a helicopter, she said.
"I think there's a desire probably on all sides for the department to not rely so much on helicopters," Swedeen said.
Fish and Wildlife tried trapping wolves in the Leadpoint pack last year, but without success. The wolves had been attacking cattle in a private pasture.