Washington wolf

A King County, Wash., judge will rule in a week on the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s protocol for culling wolves.

SEATTLE — A King County judge says he expects to rule in a week on a motion to dismiss claims that Washington Fish and Wildlife has been breaking the state’s fundamental environmental law every time it kills a wolf.

Fish and Wildlife says lethal control keeps the public from turning against wolves and resorting to poaching. Wolf advocates argue the state must study how killing wolves affects the environment.

After a 50-minute hearing Jan. 3, Superior Court Judge John McHale said he needs time to decide and anticipates issuing a ruling next Friday or the following Monday.

“I have work to do,” he said.

The lawsuit, similar to one pending in Thurston County, seeks to force Fish and Wildlife to stop killing wolves until it conducts a review under the State Environmental Policy Act. A SEPA review can take two or more years.

A Thurston County judge already has tossed out the SEPA claims, and Fish and Wildlife is seeking to duplicate that success in King County.

The two lawsuits also allege Fish and Wildlife violated the state’s Administrative Procedure Act by adopting its lethal-control policy without adequate reasons or public involvement. In both suits, that claim will be the subject of future hearings.

The dispute, being litigated in Western Washington courts, involves Fish and Wildlife actions in the eastern one-third of Washington. Wolves in Central and Western Washington are federally protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which doesn’t shoot wolves for attacking livestock.

Fish and Wildlife argues killing wolves is exempt from SEPA because it has the responsibility to remove dangerous wildlife. It also argues that it did an environmental review before it adopted a wolf recovery plan in 2011, and that shooting wolves to stop depredations was part of the plan.

Fish and Wildlife’s attorney, Joe Panesko, told Judge McHale that wolves are thriving in Eastern Washington. “The wolves have been recovering even with the lethal removals. There is no ecological disaster,” he said.

Panesko said the department dislikes killing. But if it didn’t, there would be more poaching, he said. “Social acceptance is the biggest obstacle to the recovery of wolves.”

Fish and Wildlife has avoided drawing a hard line on when it will kill wolves. The department’s director, Kelly Susewind, will consider lethal control after a pack attacks livestock three times in 30 days, but there’s no law or rule that says the department has to shoot wolves.

The department calls it a “lethal-removal protocol.” Wolf advocates’ attorney Jonathon Bashford said it’s hardened into a program to annually kill wolves. “The protocol is a policy. It’s a plan,” he said.

Bashford asked McHale to keep the SEPA claims alive for a fuller hearing now set for May 8.

Bashford said the department did not submit any evidence to support its contention that wolves devalue grazing leases.

Fish and Wildlife counted 126 wolves in Washington at the end of 2018. The department has not released a count for 2019. The department has killed 31 wolves since 2012. The department says the cullings have not prevented the overall population from growing.

The department has described northeast Washington as “saturated” with wolfpacks. The shooting of wolves in that corner of the state triggered the lawsuits in Thurston and King counties.

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