December 18, 2020

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Reconsidering Lethal Removal of Gray Wolves in Washington State - Ragnar Bloom

Gray wolves are returning in Washington state. In 2008, the first documented pack in Washington in 70 years settled in Okanogan County. Wolves from British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon have resettled in Washington and the established packs in the state continue to reproduce. According to the 2019 Annual Report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) on gray wolf Conservation and Management, there were a minimum of 108 wolves in Washington state at the end of 2019 and an additional 37 wolves on the Colville Reservation. WDFW identified twenty-one separate packs and ten successful breeding pairs.

While public attitudes towards wildlife have evolved significantly over the last 100 years, the land use tension, both perceived and actual, between active wolf habitat and livestock production remains. Through the mid-19th century, gray wolves were present in the uncounted thousands in Washington and were distributed throughout the state. After an active campaign of hunting, trapping, and poisoning fueled by state bounties in furtherance of the livestock industry, wolves were wiped out from the state by the end of the 1930s. Today, many nonlethal deterrents are used by WDFD and by livestock producers to avoid wolf depredations, but too often the final outcome is unchanged from 100 years ago – wolf killing funded by the state, nominally to prevent future cattle depredation.

When wolves began to naturally return to Washington, the state embarked on an intensive period of drafting wolf policies to guide in their recovery. The major wolf policy documents in Washington are all approximately ten years old. The state is on the cusp of rewriting all of them. Within the next one to three years, WDFW anticipates the drafting of a new wolf plan, completion of at least one new EIS, and potentially an updated listing status for gray wolves.

This is a pivotal juncture for gray wolves in Washington. Wolves were listed as federally endangered in 1973. In January 2021, federal protections for gray wolves are scheduled to end. Washington listed gray wolves as a state endangered species in 1980. In 2011, Washington completed its Gray Wolf Recovery and Management Plan and related EIS. The state is currently beginning work on a new, post-recovery wolf plan, rulemaking procedure, and EIS, to be completed within a few years and focusing on the long-term management of the species instead of its recovery. The new plan will likely coincide with a delisting of the species in the state.

  1. The Wolf Plan and the WAG

The purpose of the 2011 wolf plan “is to ensure the reestablishment of a self-sustaining population of gray wolves in Washington and to encourage social tolerance for the species by addressing and reducing conflict.” The plan is designed to achieve its purpose by focusing on four main goals:

  1. Restore wolves to a self-sustaining size and geographic distribution with a high probability of persisting through the foreseeable future;
  2. Manage wolf-livestock conflict to minimize livestock loss without negatively impacting the recovery of a sustainable wolf population;
  • Maintain healthy ungulate populations; and
  1. Promote the public’s coexistence with gray wolves by developing public understanding of their conservation and management.

This post focuses on the second of those goals and will less directly touch on the fourth.

The wolf plan acknowledges the fraught human environment gray wolves in Washington will inhabit, noting “Human-related mortality, particularly illegal killing and legal control actions to resolve conflicts, is the largest source of mortality for the species in the northwestern United States.” Since the wolf plan went into effect in 2011, WDFW has killed at least 25 wolves, including entire packs, in response to alleged attacks by wolves on livestock. In articulating when and why it kills wolves, WDFW relies on a vague, cattle-focused Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol (protocol) drafted by the state’s Wolf Advisory Group (WAG).

Formation of the WAG was one of the recommendations in the 2011 wolf plan, which itself was significantly shaped by a similar group called the Wolf Working Group. According to the wolf plan, the WAG would be a “a multi-interest stakeholder group to evaluate development of a program to compensate livestock owners for unknown losses.” Over time, however, the role of the WAG morphed beyond this narrow scope and well outside of the expertise of its stakeholder members. The WDFW WAG webpage says that the WAG is “tasked with recommending strategies for reducing conflicts with wolves outlined in the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.”

WDFW appoints the WAG members, a disproportionate number of whom are ranchers or are affiliated with livestock, hunting, or wildlife interest groups. Members of the group openly describe themselves as representing specific interests during their public WAG meetings. Surprisingly, the WDFW advisory group training handbook states that advisory groups are intended to grant unique access and influence to special interest groups over policies that will impact their constituents. (“Committee members who Represent an advocacy or special interest organization can also play a valuable role by informing their group’s members about emerging issues, policy alternatives, and related activities.”) The public list of WAG members provides not only their names, but also the special interest group with which each member is affiliated. During meetings, members sometimes discuss input on pending policy decisions that they have received from their industry colleagues, reflecting a degree of access and influence not afforded to the public at large. The meetings are public and anyone can join, but not everyone can have their views amplified by a WAG member.

  1. Governor Inslee and WDFW

Gray wolves are listed as an endangered species under state law. WDFW has been the sole administrative agency overseeing wolf recovery and management in eastern Washington since 2011 and it will have exclusive management authority throughout the state beginning in 2021, assuming federal delisting goes into effect as scheduled.

WDFW Director Kelly Susewind submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior in April 2019 in support of President Trump’s plan to remove gray wolves from the federal endangered species list throughout Washington. Governor Inslee then publicly clarified that the state opposed President Trump’s delisting plan. In September 2019, the Governor asked WDFW to “significantly reduce” its lethal removal of gray wolves, writing that “the status quo of annual lethal removal is simply unacceptable.” In September 2020, Governor Inslee then directed the WDFW to initiate a rulemaking procedure to reduce the lethal control of wolves in Washington state.

In August 2020, Director Susewind removed a pro-wolf member of the WAG, citing a “pattern of behavior” that had eroded trust. WDFW’s sudden loss of trust in the WAG member, Tim Coleman, in August 2020 came two days before an important WAG meeting at which members were scheduled to decide whether or not to adopt amendments to the lethal removal protocol. The ousting of a pro-wolf member of the WAG has only increased concern about the legitimacy and independence of the WAG and about the lack of meaningful oversight for WDFW’s wolf management policies.

Inslee’s decision to require WDFW to engage in a rulemaking process came with this political background. More narrowly, it came in response to a May 2020 rulemaking petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and others. The rulemaking petition was originally denied by WDFW. On appeal, Inslee approved the petition.

The administrative rulemaking process has not yet begun. WDFW’s website says that the public comment period is TBD. In its “Prepropoal Statement of Inquiry,” WDFW tersely lists a single reason for considering the new rule: “On September 4, 2020 the Governor directed the Department’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to initiate rulemaking proceedings.” The scope of the rulemaking has not yet been determined but it appears likely that WDFW will ultimately conduct two separate rulemaking procedures, one specifically on lethal removal and the other on post-recovery management of gray wolves in anticipation of their state delisting.

  1. Lethal removal of gray wolves has not achieved its stated intent

The goal of WDFW’s wolf removal policy has been to modify wolf behavior by killing wolves following suspected attacks on livestock. However, a review of the literature of deterrence studies commissioned by WDFW in 2014, local wolf-advocates, biologists, and the WAG, have all concluded that killing wolves does not deter future livestock depredations.

In 2014, WDFW commissioned a review of available data and studies on the efficacy of various deterrence practices. The data review found that most depredations in Washington occur in the summer, that wild prey density and livestock proximity to dens correlate with higher depredation rates, that wolves kill livestock opportunistically rather than hunting for them, and that “improving animal husbandry practices around wolf territories during high risk seasons is one of the leading factors in reducing wolf depredations.” WDFW wolf biologist Julia Smith echoed these factors in depredation patterns during her recent presentation on wolves. The 2014 review also found that lethal control is “ineffective at reducing depredation.” (page 14)

In petitioning WDFW to initiate a rulemaking procedure regarding the removal of wolves by the Department, the Center for Biological Diversity and other petitioners noted, “Petitioners generally view lethal removal of wolves as ineffectual and contrary to the best available science.” Petitioners are not alone:

There is no scientific evidence that killing wolves protects livestock. Studies have shown, however, that killing wolves can destabilize their social structure and cause survivors to increase predation of livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found in a 2017 paper that wolf predation of livestock was 3.5 times higher in areas where wolves were killed for eating livestock, versus nearby areas where nonlethal methods were used instead. And a 2014 study published by Washington State University researcher Robert Wielgus found killing wolves increased predation of livestock by destabilizing the social structure of a pack.

Inslee Breaks with State Officials, Opposes Removing Protections for Gray Wolf, Courthouse News Service, July 10, 2019.

The WAG is in the process of drafting new protocol language reflecting the ineffectiveness of wolf removal to date in Washington and expressing its frustration with the status quo.

The present application of lethal removal of wolves in SFAs (Special focus areas, previously known as chronic conflict areas) is not having the intended effect of breaking patterns of depredation and reducing losses. The protocol currently does not address this conundrum.

There is growing acceptance that killing wolves does not protect livestock by altering future pack behavior. Simply killing more wolves is not an option. One of the foundational directives from the WDFW Director for drafters of the 2011 Wolf Plan was that “no wolves” was off the table as a management alternative. (p.12) Washington’s new wolf plan should go further and wholly rely on nonlethal management techniques, which unlike lethal removal have proven to be effective, and it should eliminate lethal removal as an available management tool of even last resort.

Lethal removal of wolves has led to more wolves being killed and to more tension around wolf management, undermining both the second and the fourth goals (above) of the wolf plan. However, depredations are not exactly spiking. Only about 15% of Washington’s wolf packs engaged in any suspected livestock depredations in 2019 and only 14 cows died of suspected depredations. (In 2018, 10 cows died. See annual graph on p.23) This year, as of early December only five cows have been killed in suspected wolf attacks in Washington. (at 1:05:00) For context, there are approximately 1.1 million cows in Washington state. WDFW’s goal has always been to “reduce” or “minimize” livestock depredations. WDFW has arguably achieved its goal. Eliminating the practice of lethal removal of wolves is a smaller step than it may initially seem, given the very low rates of depredation, their concentration in public lands in the northeastern corner of the state and especially clustered in public allotments in the Kettle River Range area, and the consensus that lethal removal is ineffective regardless.

In addition to not working in practice, lethal removal is also logically and ethically flawed. First, the protocol makes no effort to ensure that the individual wolf targeted for destruction is in any way responsible for depredations on livestock. The state’s goal is simply to locate and kill a wolf in the same geographical area or from the same pack area where the suspected depredation occurred. Second, the protocol has very low evidentiary thresholds for permitting wolf killing, such as when it is reasonable to infer wolf involvement in attacks on livestock. The lack of procedural due process makes the killing of wolves only thinly glossed vengeance for livestock death or injury. Third, the protocol allows decisions regarding non-lethal wolf control measures instituted prior to any lethal action to be made in collaboration with ranchers, rather than requiring measures that will most effectively deter wolves and modify their behavior.

Judging from the tenor of recent public WAG meetings, livestock producers are as frustrated by the current status quo as Governor Inslee and wildlife advocates are. The protocol reads as deferential to producers. It allows their active involvement in all stages of wolf management that might impact their livestock or their livelihoods, even where that involvement falls outside of their expertise. Some producers have expressed frustration with the amount of involvement WDFW expects of them, suggesting that wolf management has been foisted upon them by WDFW as a second job, on top of the normal full-time responsibilities of livestock production. At the December 2, 2020, WAG meeting, one WAG member and livestock producer advocated for returning wolf management to WDFW instead of relying on producers. (at 46:00)

  1. Learning to adapt to each other

Cows aren’t going away anytime soon and hopefully wolves aren’t either. According to the protocol, “The goal of the tools and approaches described in this protocol is to influence/change wolf pack behavior to reduce the potential for recurrent wolf depredations on livestock while continuing to promote wolf recovery.”

The protocol states that it gives shape to values expressed by people throughout the state, including “achieving a sustained recovered wolf population, supporting rural ways of life, and maintaining livestock production as part of the state’s cultural and economic heritage.” This abstract language actually hits a fundamental question. In what ways can we adapt to having wolves back in the state and in what ways can we nonlethally encourage them to adapt to our presence? Both Director Susewind and WDFW wolf biologist Julia Smith persuasively argue that livestock producers are adapting, through cost-sharing of nonlethal deterrence practices such as use of range riders, flandry, scare devices, hiring of additional staff, working with WDFW conflict specialists, and other tools. Director Susewind wrote on November 27, 2019, that “As of last grazing season, there was more interest in range riding and cost-share contracts than the Department’s available funding could support.” Ms. Smith said in her recent presentation that cultural change among producers is occurring, even if that change is not necessarily easy or easily accepted.

Removing the backstop option of simply killing wolves, though it might initially be met with resistance and frustration by livestock producers, could increase the acceptance of nonlethal methods, particularly if livestock producers feel that WDFW is taking the lead to implement them and the methods prove to be more effective than lethal removal has been. The current wolf-livestock protocol is a step-by-step escalation leading to the removal of wolves or of entire packs. Indeed, the protocol drafters felt compelled to clarify that, “Under an incremental removal approach, WDFW does not explicitly set as a desired outcome of the removal of the entire pack; however, the removal of the entire pack may occur as a result of repeated incremental removals.” (at p.19) The protocol can too easily be interpreted as required box-checking leading to lethal wolf removals. Wolf-livestock management could instead be reconceived as a step-by-step escalation of implementing additional nonlethal methods, leading to greater and greater protection for livestock.

  1. Conclusion

Livestock culture was enabled by a 19th and early 20th century wolf eradication program that is no longer consistent with our state’s values, laws, or policies. The full recovery of wolves in Washington is in the best interests of the state and will further the ecological health of our land. Livestock production is an important industry in the state and can continue to thrive, particularly as it increasingly adopts husbandry practices that acknowledge the new reality of wolves in Washington and embraces a creative range of proven nonlethal deterrence practices.

WDFW has made a tremendous amount of information publicly available on its website regarding gray wolves in the state. The WAG has earnestly and in good faith attempted the complicated and emotional task of drafting a workable, effective wolf-livestock interaction protocol. But the policy drafting process needs to be opened up to a truly participatory, inclusive public rulemaking procedure led by the best available science. Scientifically-sound, even-handed, and well-informed wolf management policies probably can’t be drafted by sixteen hand-selected stakeholder representatives over zoom. When Washington completed its wolf management EIS in 2011, it had the benefit of a multi-year process that included, among other things, 43 peer reviews, three blind expert peer reviews, and a 95-day public comment period. Almost 65,000 people submitted comments. A similar influx of energy, participation, expertise, and oversight is needed once again to assist in successfully protecting and managing wolves in Washington.

Because the substantive and procedural failures of the protocol can be traced back to the structure and role of the WAG, the next wolf plan should clearly address what advisory responsibilities, if any, the WAG should have moving forward. The starting point for discussions of the 2011 wolf plan was that a return to eradication was off the table. Discussions of future wolf policies in Washington should start with the understanding that the state is finally ready to end the divisive, cruel, and ineffective practice of lethal removal.