SPOKANE, Wash. -- Eight conservation groups are complaining that it is too easy to kill wolves that attack livestock in Washington state.
The groups recently filed a petition asking the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to require that livestock producers first exhaust nonlethal measures to prevent wolf depredations before any wolves are killed.
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The major impetus for the petition occurred in 2012, when Fish and Wildlife killed seven wolves in the Wedge Pack in northeastern Washington after they started preying on livestock.
Conservation groups contend the rancher in that case made little effort to protect his animals from wolves.
"The killing of the Wedge Pack in 2012 was a tragic waste of life that highlights the need for clear rules to limit the killing of wolves," said Amaroq Weiss, of the Center for Biological Diversity. "There are effective, nonlethal measures proven to protect livestock that can, and should, be used before killing wolves is ever considered."
Nonlethal means to control wolves include the use of range riders, fencing with plastic flags, and quick removal of prey carcasses.
Dave Ware, a manager for Fish and Wildlife, said the agency is still studying the petition and had not formulated a response.
Wolves have long provoked emotional reactions in the West.
The animals were driven to extinction in Washington in the early 1900s by a government-sponsored eradication program on behalf of the livestock industry.
They began to return to the state from neighboring Idaho and British Columbia in the early 2000s, and their population has grown to at least 52 wolves today.
The gray wolf is listed as a state endangered species throughout Washington. It is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act everywhere west of Highway 97 in northeastern Washington.
But their return has not been universally hailed. Some ranchers and hunters vehemently opposed the return of the wolves, saying the animals prey on livestock and deer populations.
The conservation groups filed a similar petition last summer. They withdrew it based on a deal with Fish and Wildlife to negotiate rules that would encourage the use of nonlethal measures to control wolf numbers.
But ranchers and sports-hunting groups refused to consider the proposals, conservation groups said. The department then said it planned to introduce its own rules, but conservation groups say they do not go far enough in preventing the killing of wolves.
The Washington Cattlemen's Association is upset by the petition.
In order for wolf recovery to work for everyone, the state must be able to kill problem wolves as soon as possible, said Jack Field, vice president of the Ellensburg-based group.
"They can't fear legal ramifications from the environmental community," Field said.
If a wolf that preys on livestock is allowed to live, it will teach that behavior to the rest of the pack and then the entire pack has to be destroyed, Field said.
Cattlemen and hunting advocates contend that in the northern Rocky Mountains, where wolf hunting is allowed, successful wolf recovery generally means that up to half the population must be killed to prevent them from decimating cattle herds and other wildlife, Field said.
Ultimately, the interests of the environmental community and the cattlemen and hunters may be incompatible, Field said.
"I seriously question if the Center for Biological Diversity shares the same goal for wolf management as I do," Field said. "I think this is pretty close to an insurmountable rift."
Wolf numbers are growing quickly in the mountainous and heavily forested northeastern corner of Washington, and the animals are moving steadily into the north central portion of the state, Field said.
"We are going to have a lot of wolves throughout all of Washington before this is over," Field said.
The killing of the Wedge Pack illustrated the size of the gulf between the two sides.
Cattlemen contend that the killing of the pack was necessary because the wolves had learned to prey on cattle and would not stop. Environmentalists considered the destruction of the pack premature and heavy-handed.
"The return of wolves is a boon for Washington," said Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council in Spokane. "Not only is it good for the forest and mountains of Washington that need the balance provided by top predators, but a fledgling tourist industry is developing around the viewing of this majestic creature."
Conservation groups admit that wolves who prey on livestock must be killed. But they want lethal control to be used only after four confirmed wolf attacks resulting in livestock deaths.
Despite the relatively small size of the Washington wolf population, conflicts with humans continue.
Last fall, a wolf in Pasayten was killed by a deer hunter.
In April, state officials and conservation groups offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the illegal killing of a wolf in February in Stevens County.
Other groups that joined the petition to increase protections for wolves were Cascadia Wildlands, Western Environmental Law Center, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, Wildlands Network, Kettle Range Conservation Group and the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The state has 60 days to respond to the petition. If the petition is denied, the groups intend to appeal to Gov. Jay Inslee.