Washington Fish and Wildlife officials are briefing county commissioners throughout the state about two studies that could change how the department manages wolves.
One study, due out late summer for public comment, will evaluate whether wolves are still endangered. The other, not expected to be done until 2021, will look at handling a robust population and whether to move wolves between regions for a more even distribution.
Several Fish and Wildlife officials met Tuesday with Klickitat County commissioners, along with about two dozen ranchers and sportsmen. The south-central Washington county has no confirmed wolfpacks, but abuts the South Cascade Range, a region the state deems essential for wolf recovery.
Commissioner Jim Sizemore, a past president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said he was encouraged that Fish and Wildlife is looking ahead to managing a larger wolf population.
“I would say a good wolf plan would allow private property owners and ranchers to protect their property,” he said.
The two studies come, coincidentally, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers removing gray wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington and throughout the Lower 48 from the federal endangered species list. If that happens, state wolf policies will prevail.
The state already has jurisdiction over wolves in the eastern one-third of Washington, where recovery goals have been surpassed. Wolves also are starting to colonize the North Cascades. Fish and Wildlife, however, has not documented any packs in the South Cascades or southwest Washington.
The Legislature last year directed Fish and Wildlife to study transferring wolves to regions where recovery has been slow. The department plans to make that study part of a larger look at managing wolves once they’re off the state protected list.
Fish and Wildlife wolf coordinator Julia Smith said Wednesday that if the department ever moves wolves, it won’t be to ranching areas, such as Klickitat County. “The department is very sensitive to the needs of the livestock producer,” she said.
The translocation study was advocated in 2018 by lawmakers concerned about conditions in wolf-saturated northeast Washington. No matter how many packs are in that corner of the state, wolves will remain a protected species statewide until they occupy the South Cascades or southwest Washington as well.
The Legislature recently passed another bill authorizing Fish and Wildlife to distinguish between regions in handling conflicts between wolves and livestock. The bill makes the translocation study less important, said Rep. Joel Kretz, who represents northeast Washington.
“I’m not wild about inflicting wolves on anybody else,” he said.
Sizemore said it seems unlikely that the department will have to introduce wolves to his county.
“They’re going to get here fast enough without hauling them,” he said.
Wolfpacks are confirmed north of Klickitat County, but those packs are in the North Cascades and don’t count toward the state’s goal of having at least four packs reproducing in the South Cascades or southwest Washington.
“One or two wolves, we can co-exist. If we get four or five or more, then it’s nothing but a problem,” Klickitat County rancher Neil Kayser said. “In some places, it would absolutely devastate (ranching).”