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By Andy Porter
There’s a lot going on in the wolf world right now and Walla Walla County is playing a part, county commissioners were told Monday.
During an hourlong talk, Steve Pozzanghera, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 1 director, briefed commissioners on the latest status of the gray wolf population and what’s on the horizon for the growing population in the state and locally, where a new pack has been identified.
At the start of his presentation, Pozzanghera said he has been spending a lot of time in Northeast Washington talking with county commissioners about gray wolves “and as we see additional packs now starting to reside in the Blue Mountains … I think these dialogues are going to become more common.”
One item now in the works is development of a “periodic status review” of the wolf population, which WDFW officials hope to complete by early 2020, Pozzanghera said. That will be used to develop a recommendation to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on whether the protected status of wolves under state law should be changed.
Federal protection for gray wolves has ended in the eastern third of Washington state, but remains in place in the western two-thirds. However, under state law wolves remain listed as endangered.
Another is a study ordered by the state Legislature in 2018 on “translocation” of wolves. This involves taking wolves and moving them from one region in the state to another to achieve the numbers needed to speed up recovery of populations.
The department will be holding public meetings in late spring and early summer to gather public comments on translocation, Pozzanghera said, but he emphasized the WDFW is not at this time proposing anything. “We want to hear from the public about that first,” he said.
According to the latest wolf status report prepared by the WDFW, the Blue Mountains are now home to four wolf packs, the Touchet and Butte Creek packs on the west side of the Blues and the Grouse Flats and Tucannon packs on the east side. There are at least 16 wolves in the four packs, eight in the Grouse Flats Pack, four in the Touchet Pack and two each in the remaining two packs.
The Butte Creek Pack is among five new packs counted last year, Pozzanghera said. It is located just east of Walla Walla and south of the Touchet area.
Pozzanghera said the Butte Creek Pack is “filling up that territory to the south of the Touchet Pack, right up against and crossing into the Oregon border. So that’s a pack that we now share with the state of Oregon.”
The pack is claimed by Washington because “we know there was denning activity in Washington,” he said.
Overall, according to the annual report, at the end of December there were at least 126 wolves in Washington state among 27 packs. Included in that number were 15 successful breeding pairs. Last year there were 122 wolves counted in 22 packs with 14 breeding pairs.
Officials cautioned “this is a minimum count (and) the actual number of wolves in Washington (state) is likely higher.”
During the conversation, Commissioners Todd Kimball, Jim Johnson and Greg Tompkins questioned Pozzanghera on number of topics ranging from concerns about how fast the wolf population is growing, protection for cattle and sheep owners from wolf depredation and broader topics such as what should be included in the periodic status review to ensure it is thorough.
Along with commissioners, Sheryl Cox, a county resident and cattle rancher, questioned Pozzanghera about how wolf numbers are counted, including what defines a “breeding pair”. She also said that payments listed in the annual report to compensate producers for wolf depredation would not begin to address livestock losses in Walla Walla County. “And if a stockman’s cow dog is killed by a wolf, what price do you put on that?” she asked.
Another “indirect aspect” of increasing wolf populations is the effect they have on cattle being threatened by the predators.
“The only way we can get those cattle home in the fall is (on) horseback and with cow dogs,” Cox said. “And when the wolves are chasing the cows and the calves around for four months of the year when (a cattle producer arrives to round up his cows) those cows see his stock dogs. And they run because they equate that animal with the wolf. And that person is having a heck of a time gathering his cattle.”