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WA Fish and Wildlife Commission to decide on ‘endangered’ status of gray wolves

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(The Center Square) – The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will decide later this month on lowering gray wolves’ status under the state’s endangered species law.

Environmentalists and others who oppose the status change say it would lead to inadequate protection for the animals, who still haven’t recovered in parts of the state.

Supporters of the change contend it would do little in terms of how the animals are shielded from hunting and argue the move makes sense because wolf numbers have increased every year for 15 consecutive years.

The most recent report on the state’s gray wolf population by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife found that at the end of 2023, Washington had 260 wolves in 42 packs. Since the first breeding pack was confirmed in 2008, the gray wolf population has grown by an average of 23% every year.

The federal government has already delisted the gray wolf in eastern Washington where packs have continued to attack livestock.

In 2022, there were 37 gray wolf fatalities recorded. Of those gray wolf fatalities, nine were fatal removals after confirmed livestock depredations and another nine are being investigated as suspected poaching. There were a total of 17 confirmed kills of cattle and sheep and an additional 12 suspected livestock injuries or fatalities due to wolves.

But those numbers don’t paint the real picture according to Pam Lewison, director of the Center for Agriculture at the Washington Policy Center think tank.

“You may have a newborn calf that is born in the night and disappears without a trace, or you will see part of a tail or a hoof left behind, and that is it,” Lewison told The Center Square. “You have a distraught mama cow looking for her baby, never to be found again.”

She went on to say, “When you look at the population reports, it says ‘official’ or ‘confirmed’ depredation. If there is nothing left of that calf, you can’t prove it was a wolf kill, so we don’t know how many are actually being taken.”

If the commission votes to downlist gray wolves from “endangered” to “sensitive,” the animals would still be protected from hunting, though the penalties would be slightly lower.

“All it really does is reduce the level of fines and the number of years in prison for poaching a wolf,” Lewison said.

According to current state law, hunting or killing an animal on the endangered species list can result in a fine of up to $5,000 and one year in jail. Possible punishment for illegally hunting or killing said animal is up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Ranchers have complained that the state doesn’t compensate them fairly when wolves do take livestock

“Our compensation scale has been an object lesson for other states,” Lewison noted. “Colorado just reintroduced gray wolves per a ballot measure, and one of the insistences from their livestock-raising community was to be fairly compensated when livestock are lost to the wolves.”

Lewison explained, “If we lose a mother cow, we are not just losing a mother cow, we are losing several years of her subsequent calves. So we need to be compensated not just for her value, but also the value of her subsequent calves and it needs to be X amount of dollars.”

“We don’t do that here in Washington,” she said.

According to WPC in 2023, $28,596 was spent on compensation for 23 livestock losses, or $1,243.30 per animal lost. By comparison, Colorado reimburses livestock owners 100% of the fair market value of the animal up to $15,000 per head, regardless of whether conflict mitigation measures have been used.

The commission will meet on July 19 to vote on the status change.

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