OKANOGAN As the federal government continues to consider whether to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48, an Okanogan County official is hopeful.
“I have confidence now that they are going to delist, simply because we are gaining every single day more and more congressional senators and representatives that are bipartisan and trying to delist the wolves federally,” Commissioner Jim DeTro said. “I think it’s going to happen.”
DeTro testified recently at a congressional hearing in Arizona, the first time the county has gotten involved on the federal level in the wolf issue, he said.
He pulled no punches in his statements to the committee, ending with, “Delist the wolves and give us local control, or come get your damn wolves.”
“There were probably 500 people there. I would say 90 percent of the testimony was to delist,” he said. “It’s the first time in three years of all the hearings I’ve ever gone to that the federal government started out by saying, ‘We are here to take testimony and it is our intent to delist the wolf in the lower 48.’”
He listed the problems specific to Okanogan County: The county is bisected by U.S. Highway 97, and on the east side the wolf is delisted, while on the west side it is still federally listed. To the north, the Canadian government has set a bounty on wolves, and on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation, nine permits have been issued to kill wolves.
“I said, ‘Look at the message you guys are sending. This county is one of the most confusing counties to figure out where you are and what’s going on,’” DeTro said.
On the opposite side of the debate, 29 groups organized into the Pacific Wolf Coalition submitted 101,416 comments before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Dec. 17 deadline.
While the federal government has declared success in recovery efforts, particularly in the Rocky Mountains range and the states bordering the Great Lakes, conservation and environmental groups argue that there’s still work to be done in other areas, such as Washington.
“Wolves are wide-ranging species that don’t stop at state borders,” said Jasmine Minbashian with Conservation Northwest. “They need the federal Endangered Species Act’s coordinated, big-picture approach if they are to recover throughout their range.”
Rob Klavins, wildlife advocate with Oregon Wild, said, “Wolves are almost entirely absent in western Oregon, California and Washington. Especially as they are being killed by the hundreds in the northern Rockies, it’s critical that the Obama administration doesn’t strip wolves of basic protections just as recovery in the Pacific West begins to take hold.”
The state has confirmed 10 gray wolf packs in Washington – Lookout, Teanaway, Wenatchee, Nc’icn, Strawberry, Wedge, Smackout, Salmo, Diamond and Huckleberry. Two packs are suspected, Boulder Creek and Ruby Creek, and two packs’ dens are outside the state borders – Walla Walla and Hozomeen. There are five breeding pairs.
Fifty-one wolves have been confirmed statewide, although the state estimates the actual number is likely double that amount. The annual count is done every January.
County commissioners have consistently stated their concern for the local cattle industry and the need for ranchers to be able to protect their livestock from wolf attacks.
DeTro likened the issue to what the state faced around 30 years ago when the spotted owl was the focus of conservation efforts.
“They destroyed a multibillion dollar timber industry, not only in our state… They just completely devastated an industry with the spotted owl and used junk science to justify it,” he said, noting that the population is still down by about 40 percent.
“Now 30 years later, they say it’s the fault of the barred owls. Not one tree hugger or dickybird watcher has come forward and said, ‘We were wrong.’
“The feds are getting tired of the wolf problem, and right now they’re finding out similar to the spotted owl situation, you cannot drive the environmental species act on sentiment and innuendo and philosophical, ideological driven philosophies,” he said.
There’s also a question of which level of government is better equipped to handle wolf management.
Jack Field, executive vice president of Washington Cattlemen’s Association, spoke to the issue at a Nov. 20 hearing in Albuquerque, N.M.
“Federal delisting allows state plans, local involvement to lead the way and allow the federal government to step back and allow local stakeholders who are far closer and better tied to the land to make the decisions needed,” he said.
Members of the Pacific Wolf Coalition disagree.
“Wolf recovery on the West Coast is in its infancy, and states where protections have been lifted are hunting and trapping wolves to bare bones numbers,” Amaroq Weiss with the Center for Biological Diversity said.
Meanwhile, Okanogan County commissioners are talking with Mohave County commissioners in Arizona, who are concerned on their end about the Mexican wolves.
Mohave County has hired Fred Kelly Grant,the same attorney as Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.
“We are part of the project that Fred Kelly Grant’s group has decided to take on with some of these issues, so we might join forces with people down there,” DeTro said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has not set a deadline for a decision on the delisting.