Wolves are in the crosshairs of trophy hunters, commercial trappers, ranchers, state and federal lawmakers, and state and federal wildlife managers in established areas of their range throughout North America. We are a counter-weight to those threats, particularly in the United States, and last week, The HSUS won a signature battle for wolves. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed a lower court ruling and continued to block federal delisting of wolves in the northern Great Lakes region, chiding the USFWS for taking a piecemeal approach to wolf recovery and “call[ing] it quits” too early. Our prior win in the U.S. District Court in December 2014 has itself spared more than 2,000 wolves from being killed by trophy hunters and commercial trappers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Despite these wins in the courts, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are trying to do an end-around the established system for listing and de-listing species and subvert judicial review of those decisions in an attempt to remove federal protections for wolves. That battle is ongoing and intense. In a separate assault on wolves, Congress earlier this year did succeed, despite our best efforts, in nullifying a critical U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule that restricted ruthless killing of wolves, including by hunting them during the denning season, on 76 million acres of national wildlife refuges.
That’s why it’s so important to see a state fish and wildlife agency chart a different, more cooperative, less harmful course in the management of human relations with wolves. Washington’s state wildlife agency is doing just that.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) in Washington state, which may have as many as 150 wolves, has convened a stakeholder group – the Wolf Advisory Group (WAG) – to collect input to help guide the agency on wolf matters. Trophy hunting and commercial trapping have been taken off the table, and now the array of stakeholders – from The HSUS to Conservation Northwest to the Washington Cattlemen’s Association – have set up standards for the management of wolves, with killing something of a last resort.
While still a work in progress, and there are still occasional lethal actions taken against wolves, the WAG has turned Washington towards a progressive path that should be a model to other states for native carnivore management. If the agricultural community could constructively participate in a collaborative processes to accept and rationally manage wolves, grizzly bears, cougars and other native carnivores, these ecologically-critical species could thrive, and no longer be persecuted.
Before the WAG process, most Washington ranchers saw little value in wolves on the landscape and had no incentive to accept them – exhibiting the same hostile mentality that we see from ranchers in the Northern Rockies and the Upper Great Lakes region. Now, the Washington ranchers must manage wolves by non-lethal means, and only appeal to the state to kill animals after every other option has been tried.
That said, it hasn’t always turned out the way wolf advocates want. In 2016, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife attempted to kill all members of the Profanity Peak wolf pack in response to livestock predation. While the state succeeded in killing seven out of the fifteen Profanity Peak wolves, and the loss of those individuals is unthinkably sad and an overreach in our view, I cannot help but note that the nearby state of Idaho killed more than 250 wolves in that same year. Government agents killed 52 wolves in 2016 for livestock predation reasons, and trophy hunters and trappers killed another 200. And things are getting worse for wolves:
- In July 2017, Idaho Game and Fish took public comments on its proposal to allow hunters to bait wolves (and even queried whether live animals could be used as bait), even as it already permits year-round hunting, including killing dependent pups and their parents at the den in some zones.
- In June 2017, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department implemented the state’s management plan that includes over 80 percent of the state as an unlimited wolf-killing zone; it designated no manner of take and no bag limits on wolves. As a result, unrestrained wolf killing is permitted in most of Wyoming.
The HSUS representative and other pro-animal, pro-conservation representatives were not silent and didn’t accept passively the standards that guided Washington state to attempt to kill the members of the Profanity Peak pack. As part of the WAG process in the months that followed, they raised strenuous objections to the full-pack-removal protocols. As a result, full-pack-removals are no longer permitted in Washington and even more conservative rules for wolf killing are in play. Now, wolf killings are viewed by all stakeholders as a tool of last resort, with the goal to increase healthy wolf populations while minimizing conflict. And without a doubt, Washington wolves are better protected than wolves in every state where they number more than 100 animals.
Unfortunately, wolves from Washington’s Smackout pack have injured or killed four cattle this year on land where the rancher had used non-lethal alternatives for seven years—including using multiple range-riders—and the Sherman wolf pack has attacked at least three cows.
WDFW killed two wolves, and we hope that’s the last of the killing. Again, for animal advocates, and especially for the wolves, these are terrible outcomes. If the same set of facts existed in other states, it is important to remember, the reprisals against the wolves would have been far more severe. The influence of the WAG has tempered the passions of people traditionally bent on killing as many wolves as the law allows.
The director of WDFW and his staff make the final call on any lethal removal action, not the WAG. What’s more, the WAG cannot administer to the ranching of cattle on federal public lands. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (43 USC 315) authorizes livestock grazing upon federal public lands in the West and the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) set the stocking rates and assess grazing fees ($1.87 for the forage consumed by a cow and her calf for an entire month). As a result, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM give western livestock grazers heavy subsidies, ostensibly to offset losses from predators, even as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” program kills about 100,000 mammalian carnivores each year.
The WAG process is difficult and it is imperfect. No one at The HSUS wants wolves killed because of overly permissive and poorly-regulated public lands grazing activities. Grazing livestock on public lands drives so many threats to animals: Wildlife Services’ indiscriminate wildlife-killing practices; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act, and the round-up of thousands of wild horses and burros.
The WAG process is a practical process in a world with conflicting attitudes toward wolves. But it is without question, the best system for wolf management that’s been devised.
The HSUS stands second to no organization in its wolf protection efforts. In Michigan we led and won two ballot measures that reversed wolf hunting and trapping programs—the first-ever votes of the people on the issue of wolf protection. The HSUS has won several lawsuits to protect wolves in the Great Lakes. We were a party to similar lawsuits in the Northern Rockies. We pushed for the Alaska rules to protect predators on national preserves and national wildlife refuges, and have fought, and are fighting, efforts to unwind those critical rulemaking actions.
In Washington state, we want to continue to enliven the WAG process and continue to be an advocate for common sense and for wolf protection. Walking away from that process would doom more wolves, and that’s not something we can abide.