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OLYMPIA — The state House this week showed strong support for redistributing wolves in Washington, except from lawmakers whose districts could be candidates for taking in wolves.
The House voted 85-13 on Tuesday to direct the Department of Fish and Wildlife to study moving wolves from Eastern Washington to Western Washington. The “no” votes, three Democrats and 10 Republicans, were cast by westside legislators whose districts include expansive tracts of wildlife habitat.
Okanogan County Republican Joel Kretz pushed the bill to relieve his district from having a vast majority of the state’s wolves. His alternative proposal, giving wildlife managers more leeway to control the wolf population in four northeast counties, has gone nowhere.
“I don’t have any hard feelings about the people who voted ‘no.’ They voted their districts, and I told them they should. I get their concerns,” Kretz said Thursday. “I’m not excited about putting wolves onto anyone, anywhere, but on the flip side, I’ve tried to deal with this in a way that didn’t affect anybody else’s district, and it hasn’t worked.”
House Bill 2771 now goes to the Senate, where it could be blocked by senators concerned that their districts would be on the short list of places to introduce wolves. The House bill moved because the chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Aberdeen Democrat Brian Blake, set aside his opposition and let the bill through for a vote.
The bill was supported by a few westside lawmakers with rural constituents, but the lopsided vote was driven by eastside Republicans and urban Democrats.
Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen, a Stevens County rancher, said he understands resistance to taking in wolves. Still, he said that he supports the bill because translocation would expand support for protecting livestock and the public from wolves.
“While I don’t wish wolves on anyone, it will bring the rest of agriculture and rural folks into the fight,” Nielsen said. “It’s a social battle, and the best way to win a social battle is to have as many people on the same page as us.”
Nielsen said regional de-listing would be a better way to help northeast Washington ranchers who are losing cattle.
“I understand why people don’t want wolves in their backyard because I’m in the same boat,” he said. “We’ll welcome them into the fight.”
Under the bill, WDFW would look for places without wolves, but with enough prey to feed them. A review to satisfy the State Environmental Policy Act could take a year or longer and would be further complicated by the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over wolves in Western Washington.
Wolves are not federally protected in the eastern one-third of Washington, where they are well established. Wolves have yet to colonize the North Cascades, South Cascades or the Olympic Peninsula and appear to be at least several years away from meeting the state’s recovery goals.
Washington’s wolf plan, adopted in 2011, holds out the possibility of translocating wolves if recovery stalls. WDFW predicts recovery will happen without capturing and transporting wolves west.
Kretz said his district already has enough wolves to colonize the state. He said that he fears the consequences of having dozens of packs in northeast Washington without a plan to manage them.
“What we’re asking is for the department to take (translocation) seriously. Their response over the last few years has been, ‘We’d rather not do that. We’d rather let them naturally disperse. And we have to start (an environmental review) to do that.’ My response has been, ‘You should have started (it) a long time ago,’ ” he said.
Federal wildlife managers have moved wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to get the predators away from cattle. A study published in 2005 by Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, the University of Montana and the Nez Perce Tribe concluded that 88 wolves translocated between 1989 and 2001 had a higher mortality rate and a strong tendency to head back toward where they came from.