Conservationists fail to tighten wolf killing rules
November 2, 2023
Washington fish and wildlife officials have declined a request from conservation groups to tighten restrictions around when wolves that attack livestock can be killed.
A petition the groups filed in September with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission described Washington's system for dealing with wolf-livestock conflicts as "ineffective." It asked the panel to reopen rulemaking in order to put in place stricter protocols for when the state or ranchers are allowed to kill wolves.
The commission on Saturday voted 6-3 against that request.
Members opposed to the petition raised concerns that adding more rules could take away flexibility the Department of Fish and Wildlife has with its wolf management process, which the agency says has worked to increase the state's wolf population.
"I don't see the value in rulemaking," Commissioner Jim Anderson said. "In fact, I can see how it might undermine what we're trying to do."
The conservation groups want the state to follow more rigid guidelines before killing gray wolves, which are currently endangered under state law.
Wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are also considered endangered at the federal level while wolves in eastern Washington don't have federal protections.
Last year, six wolves were killed after conflicts with livestock, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife's annual wolf management report.
The conservation groups asked the commission to clarify a number of pieces of the agency's wolf policy, including how many conflicts must happen before the department can consider killing wolves and what options must be exhausted before moving to lethal methods.
The new guidance would have been similar to what the department already follows, but with more mandatory requirements, something advocates said could give the process more accountability.
"When we adopt rules, it gives that predictability and enforceability, and those are the two things that voluntary compliance can never do," said commissioner Lorna Smith, who supported taking up the rulemaking.
But Julia Smith, the Department of Fish and Wildlife's endangered species recovery manager, said adding stricter regulations would hamper the agency's ability to respond in adaptable ways depending on the circumstances with an individual wolf or wolf pack.
The department's policy for killing a wolf can take weeks, she said, and a number of thresholds, including the number of attacks by the wolf on livestock, attempts to use nonlethal tools to control the wolf and proof that lethal removal would actually make a difference, must be met before a wolf is killed.
Other states, like Oregon, that have stricter rules around wolf killing haven't necessarily seen better outcomes than Washington, Julia Smith said.
"Wolves are recovering in Washington," she said. "We haven't seen our protocols lead to anything other than recovery by every metric."
It's not the first time the commission has rejected a wolf-related proposal like this. Since 2013, four similar petitions have been filed, Julia Smith said.
In 2020, the commission rejected a petition to open rulemaking on wolf management. A few months later, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the Department of Fish and Wildlife to look at the issue, but the commission did not end up adopting any rule changes.
Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, which signed onto the petition, said she was disappointed that the commission chose not to fix "Washington's broken system."
"The status quo will continue to fail Washington's cherished and ecologically important wolves and all of us who care about them," Weiss said. "We need enforceable rules that require accountability and transparency before the state resorts to killing wolves."