OLYMPIA — Washington’s policy on killing depredating wolves withstood a court challenge Nov. 1, as a judge ruled Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have to put it up for formal scientific scrutiny.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge John Skinder acknowledged “profoundly passionate” feelings about wolves, but said the law supports Fish and Wildlife’s position that the policy is exempt from the State Environmental Policy Act.
“I think the state of Washington’s legal analysis is correct in this matter,” he said.
The ruling handicaps but does not end a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands.
Fish and Wildlife asked Skinder to dismiss claims based on SEPA, a law that details the process for reviewing agency actions that have a significant affect on the environment.
The hearing and ruling did not touch on whether the department’s policy violates the Administrative Procedure Act, a law meant to give the public a chance to comment on government actions.
“We would never have brought the APA claim if we didn’t think it was strong, and we still think it’s strong,” said Sophia Ressler, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The groups are suing to suspend Fish and Wildlife’s option cull a wolfpack after it attacks three head of livestock in 30 days or four head in 10 months.
Ranchers are required to have tried non-lethal measures to deter attacks. The department says the cullings will not prevent wolves from become re-established in Washington.
Washington judges have been asked a handful of times to intervene to stop the imminent shooting of wolves. The hearing was the first on whether Fish and Wildlife should have put its lethal-removal policy through a SEPA review, which can take two years or more.
Skinder cited a 1992 state Supreme Court decision that held some state agency actions are exempt from SEPA even if they could have a significant impact.
Fish and Wildlife attorney Amy Dona had argued the department has emergency and law enforcement powers to kill wolves that are attacking livestock, just like any other animal damaging property.
“The state recognizes there is a nuisance here, when a wolf is attacking livestock and causing damage,” she said.
If the department has to do an environmental review before removing a wolf, where would the department draw the line? she asked. “What about removing moles from the governor’s mansion lawn?” she asked.
Fish and Wildlife adopted its lethal-removal protocol in 2017. It was largely formed in meetings between the Fish and Wildlife staff and the department’s Wolf Advisory Group.
The department has used the protocol to guide decisions, but it doesn’t obligate Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind to order lethal control. Susewind invoked the protocol against three packs this year.
The conservation groups’ attorney, Claire Loebs Davis, said Fish and Wildlife has avoided looking at several important questions.
The questions include how shooting wolves affects recovery and the ecosystem, and whether culling packs promotes tolerance in rural areas or fosters a contempt for wolves that leads to more poaching, she said.
“This case is about whether WDFW has thoroughly and responsibly reviewed the consequences of its wolf-killing program,” Loebs Davis said.
A similar lawsuit is pending in King County Superior Court.