OLYMPIA — John Smith and other Eastern Washington farmers talk often about a new predator in their midst: the gray wolf.
They’ve have been known to prey on calves, sheep and family pets — and Smith said little can be done to stop them. And because wolves are an endangered species in Washington, farmers can’t shoot them.
“Right now, if my wife or I were to hear one of our dogs being attacked by a wolf one night, we’d have to stay in the house while that wolf killed our dog,” Smith said. “The way that this species of wolves operates is that they don’t do quick kills. We’d be forced to listen to our pet be chewed to pieces for who knows how long while our children cried inside.”
Smith also happens to be a state senator, a Colville Republican, and he’s introduced legislation to help Washington farmers protect their animals from wolf attacks.
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Senate Bill 5187 would allow animal owners to shoot wolves if they’re caught in an attack or posing an immediate threat. Smith said wolf attacks, though infrequent, can be financially devastating to small farmers who operate on slim profit margins.
“The cattle industry for my district is like Microsoft,” Smith said. “And we need to protect it from these intruders. When I moved there 25 years ago, there were no wolves. They’ve moved into my ecosystem, not the other way around.”
Gray wolves were eliminated in Washington state during the 1930s. But the animal returned to the state in 2005, migrating from Montana and Idaho, where they were successfully reintroduced. Last year, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife counted eight wolf packs, which usually included two to six wolves.
Tom Davis of the Washington Farm Bureau said his organization calls Smith’s legislation the “Affirmative Defense Bill,” as it gives citizens legal cover when they’re protecting their property.
But Conservation Northwest founder Mitch Friedman lobbied against the bill, as his agency aims to protect animals and their habitats. He’s not opposed to wolves being shot in some cases — but only as a last resort.
“It’s not a bad idea on its face, but the bill goes too far,” Friedman said.
Friedman said he supported the state Department of Fish and Wildlife shooting members of the Wedge Pack last year because there was no other option. But he still blames the situation on human error. He said the wolves probably would have left livestock alone had the rancher conducted adequate conflict avoidance, which can involve increased human presence in cattle herds and using colored flags to deter the carnivores.
“If you live in wolf country and you know there are wolves around, maybe you shouldn’t leave pets out at night,” Friedman said. “We’ve got to learn to make adjustments.”
However, there are some cases in which conflict avoidance just doesn’t work, Davis said. Sometimes wolves become used to humans, so a rancher’s presence in the herd isn’t a deterrent. He said he thinks this will become an issue as wolves move into more populated areas.
“When it comes to livestock we’d rather focus on conflict avoidance,” Davis said. “When you lose an animal to wolves, you never get back everything you lost.”
Although the Department of Fish and Wildlife is charged with carrying out a wolf-management program, the agency isn’t too concerned with wolf kills diminishing the population, said spokesman Nate Pamplin. He said Wyoming, Montana and Idaho had similar laws in place between 1995 and 2003, and only three wolves were shot during that time.
It’s rare for farmers to see wolf attacks, as the predators usually strike at night when no one is around. So, while the bill won’t likely do much, it will give farmers peace of mind, Pamplin said.
“There are some positive aspects of this bill,” Pamplin said. “It can help reduce animosity between ranchers and the government because people will feel like they can protect their property.”
The bill, which passed the Senate, will be the subject of a House hearing Wednesday.
Last year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife spent about $680,000 implementing the wolf-management program. About $5,000 was spent compensating ranchers for livestock losses, and the rest was spent on wolf monitoring and conflict avoidance.
Pamplin said his department is working on getting more state funding for wolf management. Smith has been helpful on that front, introducing Senate Bill 5193, which sets aside $50,000 a year in department funding to compensate ranchers for livestock losses.
“If Fish and Wildlife has the right funding, there will be a way to manage wolves so we don’t have to shoot them,” Smith said. “I’m a wildlife lover, so I want to make sure they at least have some money to do that.”
Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ameliadickson