While the battle over Northern Rockies gray wolf management has been most visible in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, wolf issues are also heating up in the Pacific Northwest as Washington and Oregon strive to manage small but growing packs.
Environmentalists are blasting Oregon wildlife managers for killing two wolves last month, dropping the state's wolf population to 17. The state also has issued 30 permits authorizing land owners to kill wolves caught attacking livestock or dogs.
Meanwhile, Washington is struggling to develop a recovery and management plan that satisfies both wolf advocates and opponents as wolves move back into the state, which is now home to three confirmed packs.
Gray wolves in the eastern third of Washington and Oregon were removed by Congress from the federal Endangered Species List in May along with wolves in Montana, Idaho and parts of Utah. The Northern Rockies delisting measure was inserted into a last-minute budget deal funding the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year (Land Letter, May 5).
However, wolves are still protected by federal law in Wyoming and in the western two-thirds of Oregon and Washington. State law also protects wolves in the two Pacific Northwest states, where the animals were once abundant before being extirpated as ranching and farming expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But as Rocky Mountain wolves slowly recovered after the late 1970s, some of the animals began to trickle into the Pacific Northwest, giving rise to conflicts between ranchers, property owners and wildlife advocacy groups "When wolves came into Oregon, they came into a different political, social and ecological landscape," said Rob Klavins, wildlands advocate for Oregon Wild. "We had a hope Oregon could do better than places like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and up until last year we had this feeling of 'all right, we can avoid the wolf wars.'"
But last week, Oregon Wild joined a coalition of 11 groups in writing to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife accusing the agency of violating its management plan and state law by baiting wolves back to the site of reported depredations and failing to adequately document and publicly share information about non-lethal measures taken to prevent depredations before issuing kill permits.
The agency also has approved the killing of a third wolf and distributed at least 30 take permits to livestock owners.
The coalition requested that the take permits issued to ranchers be suspended until some of their concerns are resolved. But so far, Oregon regulators have no plans to do so.
Michelle Dennehy, an ODFW spokesperson, said regulators are adhering to the state's 2005 wolf management plan, which calls for establishing four breeding pairs -- defined as a mated male and female that produce two pups that survive to their first birthday -- but also allowing for the killing of wolves that are witnessed attacking livestock or dogs.
"We need to meet our conservation mandate, but we also have to address chronic livestock losses when they occur," Dennehy said.
Oregon's wolf management plan earned qualified support from both environmentalists and ranchers when it passed six years ago, in part because the plan requires that non-lethal actions be taken to deter wolf predation before sanctioned killings can occur.
Until last month's two wolf takings, only two wolves had been killed in Oregon for livestock depredation since 2005.
But, Klavins said, "Last year, some wolves were seen on private property, and we started to see the beginnings of wolf hysteria.
"What started to happen was every single dead cow was of course a wolf kill ... when further investigations were showing that for the most part that wasn't the case," he added.
Anti-wolf sentiment appears to be growing in the region, with some critics describing wolves as "four-legged piranhas of the West," even though depredation accounts for a small fraction of livestock losses. In 2010, fewer than a dozen cows and calves were killed by wolves compared to 55,000 lost to disease, weather and other causes, Klavins said.
Wolf advocates say they are concerned about an emerging "campaign of misinformation and fear" about wolves, and they criticized Oregon wildlife regulators for failing to counter anti-wolf rhetoric with sound public education and outreach, as is called for in the management plan.
"The agency is a lot more interested in dealing with the crisis of the day and assuaging local political pressure than they are in actually conserving the species," Klavins said.
But Dennehy refuted such claims, emphasizing that the agency is not giving carte blanche authority to shoot wolves and is "working very carefully to protect" the state's two breeding pairs.
The wolf debate is also coming to a head in Washington, where a draft management plan that has been in the works for five years is expected to be adopted by the end of the year.
The first draft plan was released in 2008, and after 19 public meetings and 65,000 comments, the Washington Office of Fish and Wildlife released a revised plan last month. The plan calls for 15 breeding pairs to be split up over various parts of the state, and those pairs must successfully breed for three consecutive years before wolves can be delisted under state law. While the state has three wolf packs, only one has a confirmed breeding pair so far.
The plan represents a delicate compromise between conservationists and livestock producers on the state's citizen Wolf Working Group, which was established in 2007 to help craft the plan. However, both groups are far from satisfied.
Scientific peer reviewers called the number of breeding pairs in the Washington plan "arbitrary and capricious," noting that the number is too low to achieve the plan's primary goal of a self-sustaining and viable population. They did not offer an alternative number.
Wolf advocacy groups have called for a higher number of breeding pairs, but they are not optimistic that state regulators will amend the plan before sending it to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission for final approval.
"We want a recovery and management plan that reaches the goal of a self-sustaining and viable wolf population," said David Graves, Northwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "We're not sure if the current plan will meet that goal. But at the same time, we want a plan that can receive some broad support across the state."
Livestock producers, on the other hand, are worried that 15 breeding pairs -- which could translate to between 97 and 360 wolves statewide -- are too many. They have called for eight breeding pairs and to establish a population cap.
"This plan has too many wolves and does not focus enough on the management component," said Jack Field, vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association and working group member. "I want to see the management happen on a much sooner level."
Much like Oregon's plan, the proposal allows for wolves to be killed if caught in the act of killing livestock so long as non-lethal measures have been taken to avoid depredation. Field said it will be difficult for ranchers to meet such criteria.
While originally supporting the 2008 compromise, Field reversed his position last week at a two-day working group meeting. "It's more of a forced compromise with a gun to your head when you go to the table and you're the only one that has anything to give up," Field said.
But like Graves, Field said he does not anticipate the plan will change much between now and August, when the Office of Fish and Wildlife is scheduled to present the plan to the state wildlife commission. The commission will hold three public hearings in the fall, and make a final decision on the plan in December.
While the commission has the authority to change the document, Graves said he hopes it doesn't cave to political pressure after the public spent years building something that is at least palatable.
"We don't want the Fish and Wildlife Commission to get a hold of the plan and make some drastic changes that aren't supported by science and cause even more unhappiness with the plan," he said.
Click here to read Oregon's wolf management plan.
Click here to read Washington's draft wolf management plan.