Rural communities can coexist with wolves. Here’s how.

The success of Washington’s collaborative wolf management is seldom celebrated.

 

Mitch Friedman is a contributor to Writes on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the founder and executive director of Conservation Northwest, a Washington-based wildlife and wildlands conservation organization.


A gray wolf looking for a home can’t do better than the state of Washington. That statement might surprise people, as Washington has made headlines for killing wolves, most recently on Sept. 1 as well as earlier in the summer, when two wolves from the Smackout pack were killed following livestock attacks.

To some, the names of the Wedge, Huckleberry, Profanity and now Smackout and Sherman wolf packs are a requiem, symbols of pain and a controversial policy. But when you dig deeper, wolf recovery in Washington is a success story worth repeating.

Our state’s first pack was documented in 2008, and 20 packs have since been officially confirmed — and that’s a lowball number. Given at least 120 wolves and a growth rate greater than 25 percent annually, the range of wolves in the state is spreading west and south from its original concentration in the northeast counties. Because wolves are prolific breeders and able to adapt to a range of habitats, they do fine, so long as they’re not poisoned, trapped or profusely shot. The key to a future for wolves is retaining public support by minimizing conflict. That means finding ways for wolves and ranchers to coexist.

Washington has forged a model for building coexistence based on bringing stakeholders together through respect, dialogue and a search for common ground. This year, nearly 100 Washington ranchers and farmers signed agreements to employ deterrence measures, from range riding to guard dogs, to prevent or reduce conflicts with wolves. While some conservation groups cling to the idea that firing off press releases and lawsuits will win the day for wolves, the progress in Washington demonstrates that cooperation and compromise offer a better path to the long-term future of wolves.

This transformation through collaboration does more than protect wolves; it shows respect for rural communities. It demonstrates that cooperation rather than culture war can lead to practical solutions in some of the reddest counties in the West.

Not that collaboration and deterrence methods always succeed. Since 2012, Washington has had five conflicts bad enough that wolves have had to be killed. Yes, I, a wolf-loving lifelong conservationist, think that wolves sometimes have to be killed.

Gray wolf numbers in Washington have grown rapidly over the past few years, prompting collaboration with stakeholders.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Thanks to a well-facilitated Wolf Advisory Group composed of a wide range of stake-holding interests, we have a clear policy on that in our state. Importantly, the certainty this agreement provides gives those living and working in wolf country incentive to participate without fear of the goalposts being constantly moved. Accepting lethal removal of wolves as a last resort is a sad but integral part of coexistence. Government action is essential in the infrequent instances where livestock depredations have become chronic. 

The alternative approach is seen in Montana, Idaho and especially Wyoming, where more than 20 percent of the population — literally hundreds of wolves — is killed annually. You don’t hear about these deaths because they’re so common. In Washington, wolf kills are rare enough that some activists name each dead animal. 

Yet Washington’s success story seldom makes the headlines. Some have piggy-backed on the whole wolf controversy to raise other issues, such as whether livestock even belongs on public land. But if good wolf policy had to wait until Congress resolved the debate over public-lands grazing, few packs would be safe. And while publicizing the deaths of wolves is good for headlines and fundraising, the resulting polarization leaves wolves even more vulnerable to rural anger, poaching and legislative repercussions.

Here in Washington, key conservation groups, ranchers, hunters and other interests have enough integrity to stand together and oversee the implementation of policies they helped craft. That’s something special in today’s divided West.

The return of the wolf is just one of many budding wildlife success stories in the American West today. But without buy-in from the people who live with and around wolves, that success remains tenuous. Reasonable compromise on all sides will always be necessary. Around the world, working together and building understanding across stakeholder groups, indeed across cultures, has been shown to create more enduring conservation solutions than when people go off to their corners to fight through words, lawsuits and personal threats. 

It takes respect, listening and a willingness to collaborate and compromise, but many folks in our state are working with their neighbors to create a future of healthy wolf packs that can coexist with vibrant rural communities. For all the sound and fury everywhere else, Washington is where wolf recovery is being done right. It’s a wildlife conservation model that others ought to follow.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • SENIOR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking a Senior Environmental Planner to lead the Nature in the City team. This interdisciplinary position is housed in...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is seeking a dynamic community engagement assistant. The individual will work to identify and empower members, supporters, volunteers, and others...
  • VOICES OF WISDOM 2019 SOUTHWEST
    May 25 & 26 At the bank of the Colorado River, at Riverbend Park in Palisade, Colorado, the Sacred Fire Community in the Grand Valley...
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.