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OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers took two tentative steps last week to hasten the day wolves are off the state’s protected-species list.
The spending plan passed on the session’s last day appropriates $183,000 to study moving wolves from northeast Washington to unoccupied territories to the west.
It also allocates $172,000 to the University of Washington to search for wolves in the South Cascades.
If wolves are moved or confirmed in the South Cascades, thy would be big steps toward delisting.
Lawmakers are realizing the burden that wolf recolonization has put on four northeast counties, House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake said Friday.
“I think some of the barriers are starting to break down,” said Blake, D-Aberdeen.
Wolves have surpassed recovery goals in the northeast corner, but are too few or non-existent elsewhere to meet the state’s objectives. A decade after the Department of Fish and Wildlife identified Washington’s first pack, the South Cascades doesn’t have a confirmed wolf,
Blake said hunters tell him that wolves are in the region.
“We know there are wolves down there, but Fish and Wildlife has been so busy putting fires out in (northeast) Washington that they haven’t had the time or resources to put into the South Cascades,” he said.
The money is for a three-year study. Besides looking for wolves, researchers will study the region’s prey base.
Blake said he’s mostly interesting in sniffing out wolves. “If we’re ever going to get wolves delisted, we have to find out how many of them are in the South Cascades,” he said. “I firmly believe wolves are there. It is diverse, rugged country.”
Fish and Wildlife wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello said the department has followed up on credible reports of wolves in the South Cascades. “It’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack,” he said. “We expect there are at least a few dispersers.”
The state’s 2011 wolf plan holds out the possibility of moving wolves to energize recovery. The Department of Fish and Wildlife says it’s not necessary. The department maintains wolves will spread out on their own. For several years the department has said recovery goals could be met as soon as 2021.
“I don’t wish wolves on anybody else, but they are not dispersing naturally, like they told us they would,” said Scott Nielsen, president of the Cattle Producers of Washington, many of whose members ranch in northeast Washington. “The wolves are putting an incredible burden on a small portion of the state.”
The state won’t start moving wolves soon, if at all. The budget directs Fish and Wildlife to follow the State Environmental Protection Act and report back to the Legislature by the end of 2019. The act requires a study of the environmental consequences of state actions.
The House passed a bill directing Fish and Wildlife to do the study. The bill went nowhere in the Senate, but the House policy survived budget negotiations.
The budget also allocates $80,000 to be split equally between sheriff’s offices in Ferry and Stevens counties for wolf management. Most attacks by wolves on cattle and sheep occur in those two counties.
The counties are dispatching deputies to depredations, even though Fish and Wildlife does the investigations.
Ranchers welcome the involvement of local law officers, Nielsen said.
“I think it will be a tremendously good thing,” he said. “We have confidence in our local sheriffs.”