Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Standard) Ranchers have long argued that Washington laws should give them more flexibility and authority to kill wolves that threaten or attack livestock on their property.

They’re welcoming a new bill heard last week at the state Legislature that would do just that. The legislation would set up a three-year pilot program to allow owners of animals like cattle and sheep to kill a wolf the first time it returns to their land following a run-in with livestock.

Conservation groups argue that the proposal will allow for needless killings of the endangered species and are pursuing tighter regulations on the practice.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife figures from last year show there were 216 wolves in the state at the end of 2022, up from 206 a year earlier. The Center for Biological Diversity says 53 wolves have been killed in Washington since 2012 over conflicts with livestock.

“I know this is a divisive, emotional issue,” bill sponsor Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, said Thursday. “It polarizes people.”

Wagoner’s bill has bipartisan support, with two Democratic cosponsors – Sens. Kevin Van De Wege and John Lovick. Republican Mark Schoesler has also signed on.

The legislation is another step in the decades-long fight over managing Washington’s wolves. Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee last week granted an appeal from environmentalists to require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to review its process for when the state kills wolves.

That process can take weeks and, according to Fish and Wildlife, depends on factors like the number of incidents a wolf has been involved in, attempts to use nonlethal methods to control the animal, and evidence that killing the wolf, or wolves, will make livestock safer.

Ranchers contend the process is too slow and leaves their animals at risk. Conservation groups argue the process is ineffective and lacks accountability.

In a September petition, 11 conservation groups asked the Fish and Wildlife Commission to initiate a process to outline the steps the state must take before killing a wolf.

The commission, which sets policy and provides oversight for the Fish and Wildlife department, denied the petition by a 6-3 vote in October. Supporters of the agency’s current protocol say that while the framework is not legally binding, it provides important flexibility for Fish and Wildlife to deal with wolves on a case-by-case basis.

Following the denial, the conservation groups appealed to Inslee. The governor has twice before directed the department to look at how wolf-livestock conflicts are addressed, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

In response to Inslee’s latest directive on the issue, the department said it would review the request and begin a rulemaking process.

During a public hearing on Wagoner’s proposal on Thursday, ranchers told stories about how their livestock had been killed by wolves. Some of those who testified cried when recounting the incidents. Fifteen cattle and two sheep were confirmed killed by wolves and at least nine cattle were injured by them in 2022, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Kathy McKay, who operates a ranch near Republic, said her livestock have been repeatedly killed by wolves, and she has had no way to stop it.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” she said.

Under Senate Bill 5939, a landowner or their immediate family member or employee could monitor the site of a wolf attack, or “predation,” on livestock and can kill the first wolf that returns to it. The killing must then be reported to the Department of Fish and Wildlife within 24 hours, and the wolf carcass must be surrendered.

Julia Smith, endangered species recovery section manager at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the department supports giving farmers and ranchers more latitude in responding to wolf attacks but that the proposal still needs work.

Specifically, she said the bill needs stronger language about how to sanitize wolf carcasses and clearer definitions for what counts as a “wolf predation site.” She added the Legislature could also strengthen the state’s penalties for illegal wolf killing to ensure this proposal does not promote poaching of the animals.

“There’s a thin line between a livestock producer protecting their livestock and hunting wolves over bait,” Smith said.

Amy Porter, director of conservation at Wolf Haven International, noted that killing the first wolf that comes back to a site may not be the best way to eliminate livestock conflicts and that the science around the practice is nuanced.

Instead of allowing landowners to kill wolves, she said the state should work with ranchers to minimize the risk for their livestock.

“Lethal removal is not sustainable,” Porter said.