OLYMPIA — Under a bill introduced Tuesday, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would have a little over a year to decide whether wolves are in the state to stay.
If the answer is yes, the Fish and Wildlife Commission would consider taking wolves off the state’s endangered list, usually reserved for species seriously threatened by extinction.
Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said he wants to prod the department because of growing conflicts with wolves in his northeast Washington district.
“We don’t have years to wait on this, and the department seems content to muddle along,” he said.
Wolves are established in the rural counties Kretz represents. However, they have not made much documented progress recolonizing the Cascade Range. Until that happens, according to current Fish and Wildlife policy, wolves will continue to be a protected species.
Washington wildlife managers say wolves are multiplying and will continue to do so. Fish and Wildlife tentatively plans to finish a post-recovery management plan by October 2021, though there is no guarantee wolves will have met recovery goals by then.
The goals are not based on the number of wolves or packs. The recovery plan carves Washington into three regions. Each region must have at least four packs consistently producing pups. The eastern one-third of the state has long met the goal, but the other two regions are not close.
House Bill 2097 directs Fish and Wildlife to look at the status of wolves in a different way: Whether wolves are vulnerable to such things as disease, predation or habitat loss that could reverse their recovery.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission would then have to decide by June 30, 2020, whether to revise the status of wolves, either statewide or in just Eastern Washington. The commission would not take wolves off the state-protected list in Eastern Washington if it would impede wolves from recolonizing the rest of the state, according to the bill.
HB 2097 also calls for the state to fund more non-lethal measures to prevent wolf attacks on livestock.
Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in a statement that the department supports the concepts in Kretz’s bill.
“We know that northeastern Washington has carried the weight of wolf recovery so far and long-term success is going to require ongoing collaboration and non-lethal deterrents,” Susewind said.
“This bill supports current efforts to re-examine the listing of wolves in our state and speaks well of the sponsors that they’re willing to work with all of the partners engaged in wolf conservation.”
The bill could encounter opposition from environmental groups opposed to taking wolves in Eastern Washington off the state protected list. Kretz’s bill doesn’t propose regional de-listing, but it raises the possibility. Wolves have federal protection in the western two-thirds of Washington, no matter what the state does.
The bill also doesn’t say anything about how Fish and Wildlife should manage wolves if they are de-listed.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to have a hearing on the bill Friday. Co-sponsoring the bill are five Republicans and four Democrats, including the committee’s chairman, Brian Blake of Aberdeen.
Kretz said he hopes the bipartisan support will help the bill pass.
“I’m trying to do a balanced bill that doesn’t threaten anyone,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife counted at least 122 wolves in 2017, a number the department acknowledges could be low. The department has not yet released a 2018 count.