Several nights this week, I’ve headed home from the office incredibly sad and frustrated.
The reason for that has been making headlines here in the Pacific Northwest for a while now: The state is targeting a pack of wolves in Washington state – the Profanity Peak Pack – to be killed because of conflicts with livestock.
This is the point that we never wanted to come to. In our vision for wolves, lethal removal would never have to be used. Our team has been working for years to help livestock producers avoid conflicts with wolves, specifically because of the lethal results that these conflicts often end up having for wolves. In many cases, using nonlethal tools is enough to keep wolves away from livestock and out of trouble. This time, it wasn’t.
Pushing for Nonlethal Measures is Making Progress for Wolves
Defenders of Wildlife is one of many stakeholders on Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group (WAG) – a cross section of organizations and individuals that work together to provide guidance to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) on how to implement the state’s wolf management plan. WAG members provide recommendations including how the state can handle conflicts between wolves and livestock. Every state with wolves has some type of plan like this, though the level to which those plans protect wolves is extremely varied. Idaho’s plan, for instance, takes a “shoot first” approach, allowing for the killing of any wolves even suspected of preying on livestock. That approach has led to the deaths of more than 350 wolves in that state each year since 2011.
Working with the other stakeholders on the WAG, we have been able to negotiate a far better deal for Washington’s wolves. Livestock producers can’t just call the state when a wolf is spotted nearby and have a sharpshooter kill it. New protocols adopted this year require ranchers who experience problems with wolves to use multiple nonlethal conflict prevention measures: tools like range-riders, removing “attractants’ such as sick or injured livestock and other methods that have long been shown to help keep wolves away. And when a wolf-livestock conflict does occur, the state works with the producer to ramp up the on-the-ground nonlethal measures before the state will even consider a lethal option.
It’s hard to overstate how big a difference rules like this make for Washington wolves. In just the past two years, the number of livestock producers in Washington that are participating in conflict prevention plans with WDFW has tripled. This rapidly expanding use of nonlethal measures to deter wolves is a striking indication of how attitudes are changing across the landscape. Even some of the livestock producers originally most hesitant to work with the state are starting to adopt a nonlethal approach.
You never hear about the conflicts that almost happened, but didn’t. Or about the wolves that could have been killed as a consequence, but are safe today because the right steps were taken just in time. A large and growing number of ranchers and rural communities are finding ways to successfully coexist with wolves, taking proactive steps to minimize the chance of a conflict – which is a win for them AND for wolves. This approach is the best way to secure a real future for wolves in Washington.
Washington Wolf Recovery Is a Work in Progress – We Still Have a Lot to Do
Despite this progress, implementation of Washington’s plan is certainly not perfect. This was the first year of management under the new protocols, and we can still improve them to better protect both wolves and livestock. The good news is that in a few weeks’ time, the WAG will begin evaluating the protocols and identifying potential changes before the next grazing season. We will work closely with the other WAG members to refine these protocols based on experiences this season. We will also continue pressing the U.S. Forest Service to more actively promote non-lethal conflict prevention measures on the public lands they manage in known wolf territories.
I know that our supporters have placed their trust in us to do everything possible to ensure a future for wolves here in Washington. We work hard toward that goal every single day. When we lose wolves to conflicts like this, it is devastating for everyone and it can be easy to feel that what we’re doing isn’t working. But I’m here to tell you that as gut-wrenching as this loss is, we know that on the whole, the work we are doing is making a safer landscape for wolves across Washington. We’re literally trying to change an entire culture. One that was built on the absence of wolves over the span of decades. It’s slow going – but it’s working. What we’re seeing right now is hopefully just one very sad page in the much longer story of success for wolf recovery in Washington state.