Poaching may be limiting progress toward wolf recovery goals.

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WOLVES are important native predators and vital pieces of our wildlife heritage. The news [“Four new wolf packs recorded in state,” Local News, March 14] that Washington is now home to at least 90 wolves, 18 packs and eight breeding pairs is exciting.

However, eight years after wolves were first confirmed back in the North Cascades, there are only three wolf packs in that designated recovery area. There remain no confirmed wolf packs in the Cascades south of Interstate 90 or in Western Washington. In order to meet wolf-recovery goals agreed upon under the Washington Wolf Conservation and Management Plan (Wolf Plan), and for the long term viability of the species in our state, it’s important that wolves recolonize the high-quality habitat in the Olympic Peninsula and Washington’s South Cascades.

It’s not unexpected that wolf recovery would take longer in these areas compared to the northeast and southeast corners of our state. But nearly a decade into wolf recovery, and with unoccupied habitat widely available, and deer, elk and other prey populations healthy, my organization, Conservation Northwest, is concerned the illegal killing of wolves is delaying their recovery. We’re advocating for stronger penalties to deter wolf poaching.

Wolves are protected by both state and federal endangered-species laws in Washington. Yet wolf poaching has occurred with tragic frequency in recent years. Several members of the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack were poached in 2010. A wolf from the Smackout Pack was poached in late 2013. The 2014 poaching of a Kittitas County breeding female wolf is still unprosecuted. In September 2015, shamefully minimal fines were announced for a Whitman County wolf poacher. Also in 2015, investigators announced that a lone wolf killed by a vehicle on I-90 west of Snoqualmie Pass had previously been shot. Numerous other unconfirmed rumors of wolf poaching reach us each year, and some are most certainly true.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bull elk or a wolf, poaching is never acceptable. It’s an abuse of the shared natural heritage that belongs to all of us. Many stakeholders in Washington are working hard to responsibly coexist with native predators. We know that some are looking forward to the day when wolf-recovery goals are met and more flexible wolf management is allowed. Illegal poaching does nothing but delay that day and cast a shadow on the otherwise responsible hunting and ranching communities.

We applaud efforts by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, livestock producers, hunters, wildlife watchers and other stakeholders to collaborate on decision-making related to wolves. The greater inclusion and genuine listening demonstrated in 2015 by the Wolf Advisory Group, of which my organization is a member, is leading to a transformation of the conflict that all too often shrouds predator recovery. This is laudable progress that we believe will lead to better outcomes for everyone. And we hope that the benefits of this collaboration will include increased social tolerance for predators and less wolf killing. We’re committed to working with all parties to ensure that Washington can be the state where wolf conservation works in the long run, for people, wolves and all our state’s wildlife.

Responsible Washingtonians are working together and making compromises, including partnering to fund and implement proactive measures to reduce or prevent wolf depredations on livestock. Various stakeholders are supporting research by our state’s universities to monitor the impact of the wolf’s return on deer, elk and other ungulate populations — animals cherished by wildlife watchers and hunters alike, myself included.

Yet indications remain that illegal wolf killing is delaying progress toward recovery objectives agreed upon during the formation of the Wolf Plan. Our state’s elected leaders, justice system and the Department of Fish and Wildlife should implement stiffer penalties and increased enforcement to safeguard the comeback of Washington’s wolves.

Doing so would benefit wolf recovery, wildlife stakeholders and a wild future for all of us.