The Latest: Wolves resilient, but proposal tests expansion

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Latest on the proposed removal of federal protections for wolves (all times local):

3:15 p.m.

A proposal to strip gray wolves of federal protections could curtail their rapid expansion across vast swaths of the U.S., yet the predators already are proving to be resilient in states where hunting and trapping occur.

The Interior Department on Thursday declared gray wolves recovered across the Lower 48 states. If finalized, the proposal would allow hunting in more areas.

The species has seen a remarkable turnaround — from near-extermination to more than 6,000 gray wolves spread across nine states.

Critics say hunts could kill thousands of the animals and prevent their further spread.

But in the Northern Rockies, where legal wolf harvests began a decade ago, the animal’s numbers have held relatively steady and packs have expanded west into Oregon, Washington and California.

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6:45 a.m.

U.S. wildlife officials want to strip gray wolves of their remaining federal protections and declare the species recovered following a decades-long restoration effort.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal released Thursday would put wolves under state authority and allow hunting in more areas. The Associated Press reported last week that the proposal was coming.

Critics argue the move is premature, with wolves still absent across most of their historic range.

Government officials say their goal was to protect against extinction, not restore wolves everywhere.

Trapping, poisoning and hunting exterminated wolves across most of the Lower 48 early last century. They bounced back under federal protection, and more than 6,000 now live in portions of nine states.

A final decision on lifting protections will follow a public comment period.

Newhouse praises U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal to delist gray wolf

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) released the following statement after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that FWS will soon propose a rule to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states and return management of the species back to the states and tribes.

FWS intends to publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register in the coming days, opening a public comment period on the proposal.

“The best available science shows that the gray wolf has successfully recovered from the danger of extinction and no longer requires federal protection,” said Rep. Newhouse. “We can see in Washington state that the wolf population is growing quickly while being effectively managed by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in the eastern third of the state. I applaud the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s for moving forward with a proposal to delist the wolf in the lower 48 states in order to return management to the states.”

Rep. Newhouse was an original cosponsor of H.R. 6784, the Manage Our Wolves Act, which the House passed on November 16, 2018.

Michigan gray wolves could lose federal protections, be hunted

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U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that will almost certainly re-ignite Michigan’s fierce, long-running debate over wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was expected to announce the proposal during a Wednesday speech before a wildlife conference in Denver, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Gavin Shire said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The decision to lift protections is based on gray wolves successfully recovering from widespread extermination last century, Shire said. He said further details would be made public during a formal announcement planned in coming days.

Many sportsmen see Great Lakes gray wolves as a recovered species that must be managed — through hunting — to limit depredation of livestock, dangerous encounters with people and dogs, and undesirable reductions in the number of deer. But many other Michigan residents — including those who rejected wolf hunting in 2014 ballot measures — say it would be an unnecessary sport hunt of a species that isn’t out of the woods yet on its recovery.

“We believe decisions regarding the management of wolves, or any species, should be based on the best available science, and that science says wolves need continued protection,” said Molly Tamulevich, Michigan director for the nonprofit Humane Society of the United States, a leading opponent of wolf hunting in Michigan.

Attempts to remove protections for the wolves usually “are rooted in myths and fears, rather than science,” she said.

Michigan held its controversial first, firearm-only wolf hunt in November and December 2013, with hunters killing 23 wolves in designated areas of the U.P.

Michigan voters then rejected wolf hunting in two statewide ballot measures in November 2014. But the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder, at the urging of hunting groups, restored the wolf hunt that year, before a 2014 federal district court ruling again restored Endangered Species Act protections to Great Lakes wolves — the third time wolves had been removed from the endangered species list and put back on. A federal Court of Appeals affirmed the district court ruling in 2017.

Wolves were hunted to near-extinction in the Upper Midwest, including Michigan, over the early 20th Century. The Upper Peninsula had only three wolves as recently as 1989. But the wolf population rebounded significantly in subsequent years, assisted by protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The U.P. had 662 wolves found among 139 packs in the winter of 2017-18.

The wolf population “recovered a long time ago,” and wolves no longer need federal protection, said Tony Demboski, who lives in Quinessec, near Iron Mountain in the western Upper Peninsula. Demboski is president of the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 hunting clubs and businesses.

“Outstanding,” Demboski said of the news from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “(Wolves) are very detrimental to our deer herd, and we already have enough problems with the snow and the cold.”

Demboski said he does not support another near-extermination of wolves in Michigan.

“Nobody wants to kill all of the wolves — that’s not the idea,” he said. “But a scientific management of what we can have. We do it for everything else – deer, elk, moose, even our fisheries. Manage it.”

If finalized, the federal proposal will allow trophy hunting and trapping of wolves in the Great Lakes states, and will slow or completely halt recovery of wolves in more of their former range, said Collette Adkins a senior attorney with the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, in a release.

“This disgusting proposal would be a death sentence for gray wolves across the country,” she said. “The Trump administration is dead set on appeasing special interests that want to kill wolves.”

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or kmatheny@freepress.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny. Associated Press reporters Matthew Brown and John Flesher contributed to this report.

U.S. plans to lift protections for gray wolves, angering wildlife activists

U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, re-igniting the legal battle over a predator that’s running into conflicts with farmers and ranchers as its numbers rebound in some regions.

The proposal would give states the authority to hold wolf hunting and trapping seasons. It was announced Wednesday by acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt at a wildlife conference in Denver.

Wolves had previously lost federal protections in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where hunters and trappers now kill hundreds of the animals annually.

Wildlife advocates and some members of Congress reacted with outrage to the latest proposal and promised to challenge any final decision in court.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now with the group Defenders of Wildlife, warned of an “all-out war on wolves” if the plan advances.

“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said.

But government officials countered that the recovery of wolves from widespread extermination last century has worked and they no longer need the Endangered Species Act to shield them.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire said in an emailed statement.

Agriculture groups and lawmakers from Western states are likely to support the administration’s proposal.

Further details were expected during a formal announcement planned in coming days.

Long despised by farmers and ranchers, wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in most of the U.S. by the mid-20th century.

They received endangered species protections in 1975, when there were about 1,000 left, only in northern Minnesota. Now more than 5,000 of the animals live in the contiguous U.S.

es and Northern Rockies regions.

Protections for the Northern Rockies population were lifted in 2011. State officials and government biologists say the region’s wolves have continued to thrive despite pressure from hunting. The animals are prolific breeders and can adapt to a variety of habitats.

Wildlife advocates want to keep federal protections kept in place until wolves repopulate more of a historical range that stretched across most of North America.

Since being reintroduced in Yellowstone National park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the Northern Rockies population has expanded to parts of Oregon, Washington and California.

Those states so far have not allowed hunting, despite growing pressure from ranchers whose livestock herds have been attacked.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has argued for years that gray wolves have recovered in the lower 48 states, despite experts who contend they occupy only about 15 percent of the territory they once roamed. Agency officials insist the recovery of wolves everywhere is not required for the species no longer to be in danger of extinction.

John Vucetich, a wildlife biologist at Michigan Technological University, said most wolf experts probably would agree the species is not at imminent risk. But said he dropping federal protections was a premature move.

Many people “still find it difficult to live with wolves,” primarily because they kill livestock as well as deer and elk that people like to hunt, Vucetich said. If wolves are returned to state management, he said, “I do worry that some of the states could be overly aggressive and that wolves could fare worse than their current condition.”

The government first proposed revoking the wolf’s protected status across the Lower 48 states in 2013. It backed off after federal courts struck down its plan for “delisting” the species in the western Great Lakes region states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials disclosed to the AP last year that another scientific review of the animal’s status had been launched.

Shire declined to disclose the agency’s rationale for determining the species had recovered, but said members of the public would have a chance to comment before a final decision in coming months.

Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, applauded the federal agency’s plan and said many farmers and ranchers have lost livestock to wolf kills since the species was granted legal protections. The farmers and ranchers will respect state regulations aimed at managing wolf populations, he said.

“Some people like them, some people don’t, but the law’s the law,” Yates said.

Lawmakers in Congress frustrated with court rulings maintaining protections for wolves have backed legislation to forcibly strip protections in the Great Lakes region and beyond. A similar effort by lawmakers ended protections for Northern Rockies wolves.

Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan. Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus contributed from Portland.

Trump Administration Seeks To Take Gray Wolf Off Endangered Species List

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will propose lifting protections on the gray wolf, seen here in 2008. The species’ status under the Endangered Species Act has been contested for years.

Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will seek to end federal protections for the gray wolf throughout the lower 48 states, Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced Wednesday.

In a statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it will propose a rule to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list and “return management of the species to the states and tribes.” That means states would be able to make their own rules about hunting and culling of gray wolf populations.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink with the help of the ESA,” a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said in a statement.

The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register in the coming days. A public comment period will follow.

In 1978, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the gray wolf as an endangered species throughout the contiguous U.S., except in Minnesota, where the wolf population was classified as threatened. The gray wolf was dropped from the endangered list in Idaho and Montana in 2011. There are now more than 5,000 gray wolves in the Lower 48, up from about 1,000 in 1975, according to The Associated Press.

The protected status of the gray wolf has been contested for years. Many farmers and ranchers see the species as a menace.

There is disagreement about how fully the gray wolf population has recovered. Conservation groups say the gray wolf is found in just a small portion of its former territory.

The Center for Biological Diversity says that gray wolf numbers have only recently recovered in certain regions, and the proposed rule would be dire for their prospects elsewhere. “The proposal will also all but ensure that wolves are not allowed to recover in the Adirondacks, southern Rockies and elsewhere that scientists have identified suitable habitat,” the organization said Wednesday.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told the AP that protections were needed to prevent “an all-out war on wolves” in states that would allow them to be hunted.

“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said. “We’re going to fight this in any way possible.”

Fish and Game trips on wolf trapping

Imagine a 10-year-old girl in tears when she wasn’t allowed to speak against wolf trapping after sitting for two hours in an Idaho Fish and Game-hosted meeting in Hailey on Feb. 19. Imagine how she felt when she was told that she could go to Boise to speak to the Fish and Game Commission on March 12. But how could she when it was on a school night? The room was packed with other concerned Blaine County citizens, but no one was allowed to speak. Apparently, this type of meeting by Fish and Game doesn’t allow public comment.

After years of respecting local values of coexistence with wolves, why is the Idaho Fish and Game Commission trampling on those values? Something has radically changed? For the first time, the commission wants to open wolf trapping on private lands in Blaine County. How does this reflect on our new Gov. Brad Little, who seems a moderate voice on the environment?

Whatever the Fish and Game rationale, wolf trapping in Blaine County ignores 12 years of collaboration with the Wood River Wolf Project, a program that deters wolf depredation of livestock through nonlethal means. Blaine County and the city of Ketchum have supported this program because coexistence with wolves expresses core citizen values of wildlife protection. The Wood River Women’s Foundation, a 380-member powerhouse, gave significant grants in 2017 and 2018 to support this important effort. Our community has spoken often and clearly.

Idaho Fish and Game has clearly tripped on wolf trapping on private lands in Blaine County. We can easily debunk the commission’s argument that trapping regulations should be uniform statewide. Why would these be uniform when most other types of hunting are regulated on an area-by-area basis?

With 1.6 million acres of land in Blaine County, there is often no distinction between public and private lands in remote canyons and valleys. Trapping anywhere puts the public at risk and ignores our hard work to coexist with wolves and all wildlife.

I urge you to contact Gov. Brad Little and the Fish and Game Commission against this proposal.

Sarah Michael, Blaine County


Sarah Michael was a Blaine County commissioner from 2001-2008.

Wolf hunting could be allowed at nighttime under Montana bill

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Wolves could be hunted at night and traps set along seasonally closed roads under a pair of bills brought by a northwest Montana lawmaker Thursday.

Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, brought House Bills 551 and 552 to the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.

Rep. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls)
Rep. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls)

The first bill would allow nighttime wolf hunting, making them the only big game animal that could be hunted outside of daylight hours. Other nongame animals such as coyotes and skunks already may be hunted at night.

“I know this is going to be a kind of an unpopular thing,” Brown acknowledged after several wolf bills have already brought strong debate this session. But many of his constituents in northwest Montana have been outspoken about reducing wolf numbers, he said.

The bill saw support from two individuals who described it as “another tool in the toolbox” to manage wolves.

Garrett Bacon testified that it would help key in on problem wolves by allowing hunting when they are most active and possibly preying on livestock.

Scott Blackman also testified in support and believed the number of hunters that would focus on hunting wolves at night would be limited to a few serious individuals.

Several conservation groups testified in opposition on topics ranging from ethics to safety.

“We feel hunting any game animal at night is unethical,” and won’t help the image of hunters, said Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Marc Cooke with Wolves of the Rockies agreed with the ethical concerns but also noted that shooting at night raises safety issues with identifying a target and beyond.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks testified in opposition, echoing the concerns of others as well as the propensity for poaching at night, which is often associated with spotlighting.

Brown’s second bill, SB 552, was borne out of what he sees as difference in opinion about what constitutes a closed road when it comes to trapping and particularly the trapping of wolves.

Along open roads and trails, trapping regulations require traps be set a certain distance away. Called a “setback,” the distance is intended to reduce conflicts with other recreationists, particularly those with dogs that may be unintentionally caught. Traps for most animals must be set 50 feet from a road or trail while wolf traps require a 150-foot setback.

Under the bill, setback regulations would not apply to roads closed year-round to highway vehicles nor would they apply to seasonally closed gated roads for wolf trapping. The setback regulations currently apply to seasonally closed roads.

Brown said he believed the definition of a closed and open road should be made by legislators rather than the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, and that many of the gated roads are in the high country that sees lower use by other recreationists. He also noted that while the areas in question are public land, pet owners “also need to take responsibility for their pets” when venturing out in wolf habitat and where trapping is taking place.

Blackman, testifying for the Montana Trappers Association, agreed with the bill and felt it was “nothing more than a clarification.”

KC York with Trap Free Montana Public Lands disagreed, holding up a wolf trap and saying “Traps hold our public lands hostage,” and adding that a great deal of work went into establishing setbacks.

Art Compton with the Sierra Club felt that roads closed year-round should be the last place to lift setbacks, as recreationists such as skiers and snowshoers seek those areas out to get away from motorized users.

Brown closed on the bill by noting that many miles of ungated roads would still fall under the setback regulations and reiterated responsibility.

“(We’re) asking some responsibility from trappers in many cases and I think we need to ask some responsibility from pet owners,” he said.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bills.

Wolf Advisory group meeting Tuesday, Wednesday

http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2019/feb/07/wolf-advisory-group-meeting-tuesday-wednesday/#_=_

Thu., Feb. 7, 2019, 4 p.m.

FILE - This April 18, 2008 file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife shows a grey wolf. A federal report says gray wolves killed a record number of livestock in Wyoming in 2016, and wildlife managers responded by killing a record number of wolves that were responsible. The report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that wolves killed 243 livestock, including one horse, in 2016 in Wyoming. As a result, wildlife managers last year killed 113 wolves that were confirmed to be attacking livestock. (AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Kramer, File) ORG XMIT: LA112 (Gary Kramer / AP)
FILE – This April 18, 2008 file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife shows a grey wolf. A federal report says gray wolves killed a record number of livestock in Wyoming in 2016, and wildlife managers responded by killing a record number of wolves that were responsible. The report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that wolves killed 243 livestock, including one horse, in 2016 in Wyoming. As a result, wildlife managers last year killed 113 wolves that were confirmed to be attacking livestock. (AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Kramer, File) ORG XMIT: LA112 (Gary Kramer / AP)

The Washington Wolf Advisory group will discuss what to do once wolves are delisted in the state during a meeting on Olympia, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The WAG, which is made up representatives from various interest groups across the state, will also discuss communication between the department and stakeholders: including data sharing, how and when the department makes decisions and staff response time to incidents.

The meeting will be held at the Meetinghouse at Priest Point, 3201 Boston Harbor Road NE, Olympia. There will also be an open-house style public comment period on Feb. 12 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. prior to the WAG work session.

For more information visit wdfw.wa.gov/about/advisory/wag/.

Wolf shot, killed near Sprague Lake about 40 miles from Spokane

http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2019/feb/08/wolf-shot-killed-in-adams-county-in-area-with-no-d/

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 8, 2019, 10:50 p.m.

This February 2017  photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows a gray wolf of the Wenaha Pack captured on a remote camera on U.S. Forest Service land in Oregon's northern Wallowa County. In an area where no documented wolf packs roam, a rancher shot a wolf, Monday. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
This February 2017 photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows a gray wolf of the Wenaha Pack captured on a remote camera on U.S. Forest Service land in Oregon’s northern Wallowa County. In an area where no documented wolf packs roam, a rancher shot a wolf, Monday. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

A ranch employee shot and killed a wolf chasing cattle near Sprague Lake on Monday, about 40 miles southwest of Spokane where there are no documented packs.

He was checking on cattle in northeastern Adams County near the end of Sprague Lake, when he saw cattle running from three wolves.

When he yelled at the wolves, two stopped and retreated. The third, an adult female, continued the chase, said Donny Martorello, the wolf policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The employee then shot and killed the wolf. One of the owners of the ranch, who wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said the ranch hasn’t had problems with wolves in the past.

“The wolves are going to have to learn to live with us,” the rancher said. “We’re going to do our best to get along with everything, but we run a ranch. We have thousands of heads of cattle.”

The shooting has been deemed lawful by a preliminary investigation, according to Martorello. Although the Washington wolf plan does not allow private citizens to kill wolves, a subsequent WDFW commission rule allows for the killing of wolves caught in the act of attacking cattle, Martorello said.

“In areas of Washington where wolves are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, WAC 220-440-080 states the owner of domestic animals (or an immediate family member, agent, or employee) may kill one gray wolf without a permit issued by the WDFW director if the wolf is attacking their domestic animals,” according to a WDFW news release.

The caught-in-the-act rule has been used twice before, once in summer 2017 on the Smackout Pack and once in November 2017 on the Togo Pack, Martorello said.

The Center for Biological Diversity claims the killing is illegal and unnecessary.

“The shooting of this wolf is outrageous and saddening, and part of a troubling pattern of wolf-killing in Washington,” Amaroq Weiss, the center’s West Coast wolf advocate, said in an emailed statement. “A shot fired over the wolf’s head could have instead scared it away.”

The state’s 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management plan defines attacking “as biting, wounding, or killing; not just chasing or pursuing.”

Martorello said the WAC supersedes the wolf plan. The WAC does not define what attacking means.

“Washington state law allows people to shoot wolves that are caught in the act of attacking livestock or pets,” Chase Gunnell, communications director of Conservation Northwest, said in an email. “As difficult as situations like this are, we support this policy as a reasonable component of responsible wolf conservation and management.”

Martorello said the ranchers check on their cows daily. The cows in question were in an 800-acre pasture and the ranch runs a controlled calving operation.

The state wolf plan guidelines define a wolf pack as two or more animals traveling together in the winter, Martorello said. Agency officials will be following up to see if they can document additional tracks or sightings (either in person or by camera).

“It’s very suggestive of a formation of a pack,” he said.

In 2014, a wolf killed sheep near Lamont, south of Sprague.

Chris Bachman, wildlife program director at the Spokane-based Lands Council, said the Sprague area is not great wolf habitat.

“It would seem that it’s just sort of a fluke pass-through,” he said. “It’s really hard for me to imagine that area would become a territory that a pack would stay in.”

Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is close and boasts both great habitat and a great prey source.

However, for the past two years there have been five cameras set up throughout the refuge to document elk, said Mike Rule, Turnbull’s wildlife biologist. No wolves have been spotted.

“You would just think that if there was one or two or three running around on a regular basis, someone would have seen one,” he said. “It could be in the near future we may end up seeing something here. As of now, nothing.”

If a pack is confirmed, Bachman said the Lands Council and others groups would hope to work with ranchers to put in place nonlethal deterrents such as fladry and fox lights.

According to the latest WDFW estimate, there are a minimum of 122 wolves, 22 packs and 14 successful breeding pairs statewide. That estimate was reported nearly a year ago.

That number is likely much higher. University of Washington researchers, using scat-sniffing dogs, said the number of wolves in the state could be closer to 200.

That minimum number has been criticized by wolf activists and ranchers alike. In the winter, WDFW staff fly in airplanes counting wolves to come to the minimum count.

“What we do know is tried and trued methodology that we’ve adopted from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and from other Western states,” Martorello said.

But as the number of wolves grows, the agency may consider a different methodology.

“As the numbers increase, it’s more challenging to count every wolf,” he said.

For several years, Hank Seipp has independently tried to confirm the existence of wolves in the West Plains area. In 2016 and 2017, he caught wolves on trail cameras on Mount Spokane. He’s placed numerous trail cameras throughout the Cheney and Sprague areas but hasn’t seen a wolf, although he has found paw prints and scat he believes came from wolves.

He said ranchers in the area need to stop disposing of dead cattle in open pits. That disposal method is common throughout the West Plains. Seipp hopes ranchers in the area can be reimbursed for the cost of preventive practices.

“Do they have the financial ability to do this? No,” he said. “And the community should be stepping up.”

WDFW’s lethal removal policy allows killing wolves if they prey on livestock three times in a 30-day period or four times in a 10-month periodThat policy was developed in 2016 by WDFW and its 18-member Wolf Advisory Group, which represents the concerns of environmentalists, hunters and livestock ranchers.

The policy also stipulates that cattle producers must have employed at least two proactive deterrence techniques. Lethal control is allowed in the eastern third of the state where wolves are protected by state endangered species rules. Wolves remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state.

Washington wolf population likely larger than estimates, researcher says

A University of Washington researcher told a state Senate committee that it’s possible the state’s population of wolves is closer to 200 animals, compared to 122 the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated.

The number of wolves in Washington state is likely much higher than previously thought, according to a University of Washington researcher who spent two years studying the animals using scat-sniffing dogs.

Samuel Wasser said his dogs detected 95 wolves in one area of Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, in the rural northeast corner of the state, during the 2016-17 season. That approached the total number of wolves wildlife officials estimated for the entire state.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife a year ago estimated Washington had a minimum of 122 wolves, grouped in at least 22 packs, and 14 successful breeding pairs.

RELATED: Wolves making faster comeback than expected in Washington state

Wasser told a state Senate committee last week that it’s possible the population of wolves is closer to 200 animals.

State wolf managers also addressed the panel, saying Washington’s wolf population has grown on average 30 percent per year.

“We are seeing a wave of recovery,” said Donny Martorello, head of wolf policy for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “This is indicative of adequate protections, available habitat and suitable prey base.”

Washington also has fewer conflicts between wolves and cattle than many other states, he told the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

The question of how many wolves roam the state is important because it determines whether wolves are considered a protected species under state and federal law.

Wolves are a state endangered species throughout Washington, where they were all but wiped out early in the last century but started returning from neighboring Idaho and Canada after the turn of the new century. They also remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state, where killing wolves is prohibited.

According to Washington’s wolf recovery plan, wolves can be delisted after 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years, or after officials document 18 breeding pairs in one year.

RELATED: Bill would ship problem wolves to Bainbridge Island

Most likely, the state will document 18 breeding pairs in one year before they document 15 successful pairs over the course of three years, Martorello said.

In any event, those who wish for the removal of all wolves will not get their wish, the wildlife department’s director, Kelly Susewind, told the committee.

“Wolves are doing quite well. They’re here. They’re here to stay,” Susewind said.

The return of the wolves is problematic in ranching areas because they sometimes prey on livestock. To the dismay of some conservation groups, that has prompted the state to track and kill several wolf packs in recent years.

While many urban residents support the return of wolves, livestock producers on the front lines — in the lightly populated northeastern part of the state — are wary.

A state lawmaker from that rural area, where Wasser conducted his study, this week introduced a bill in the Legislature to create a wolf sanctuary in the heavily residential Seattle suburb of Bainbridge Island. Republican Rep. Joel Kretz’s bill was in response to the legislator from Bainbridge Island introducing a bill to ban the killing of wolves.

“I’m sure the gray wolves will seek to placidly co-exist with the dogs, cats, horses, sheep, people and other peaceful animals of the island,” said Kretz, of Wauconda.

His bill also said the state can kill wolves only after “four dogs, four cats or two children have been killed.”

Wasser and his team used dogs to sniff out scat of different animals. By analyzing the excrement, biologists can determine whether an animal is malnourished, pregnant or stressed.

Wasser’s team is also looking at how wolves and smaller predators, such as coyotes and bobcats, interact. Preliminary findings indicate wolves are avoiding coyotes.

RELATED: Washington ranchers struggle to keep cattle safe in wolf territory

Preliminary analysis of the scat composition shows wolves have been eating mostly deer, followed by moose and elk. Coyotes and bobcats have been eating mostly snowshoe hares.

Washington is a good place to study wolves because the animals haven’t spread to all areas of the state, Wasser said. Studying areas where wolves are not widely found, such as south of Interstate 90, and observing how the ecosystem responds will shed light on the interaction between wolves and other predators.

The environmental group Conservation Northwest welcomed Wasser’s findings on wolf numbers.

“Wolf recovery is progressing well in Washington,” the group said. “Despite a few high-profile events, the rate of wolf mortality is much lower here than in Rocky Mountain states.”

The group said it hopes to soon see wolves confirmed in Washington’s South Cascades, as well as new areas of the North Cascades.