Governor Inslee of Washington Sides with Wolves

Even Foresighted Politicians Face Pushback from State Wildlife Agencies Rigged in Favor of Trophy Hunters and Ranchers

Washington Governor Jay Inslee flashed his animal-protection credentials in wading into the ongoing battle over wolf management, signaling to his state Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department), in not so many words, that it’s killing too many wolves in damage control actions.

“I write to ask you to make changes in the gray wolf recovery program to further increase reliance on non-lethal methods and to significantly reduce the need for lethal removal of this species,” wrote Inslee in a letter to Department director Kelly Susewind.

Indeed, the state has been very busy when it comes to wolves. Shooting them from aircraft.  Wiping out entire packs.  Issuing regular “kill orders.”

That’s no way to treat an endangered species.

There may be as few as 120 wolves in the state, and to the consternation of so many citizens, the Department wiped out the Old Profanity Territory pack a few weeks ago.  They’d eliminated a series of other packs in prior years and have active kill orders on a number of surviving packs.

One ranching operation, the Diamond M Ranch, is responsible for issuing complaints that have triggered 85 percent of wolves killed through depredation permits in Washington since wolves returned to the state. The vast majority of kills have occurred on a 1.1 million-acre national forest.

How does it happen that a state fish and wildlife agency became a contract killer for a small number of ranching outfits?

It happens because state fish and wildlife agencies, despite their straightforward-sounding name, have since inception been dominated by sport hunting and ranching interests.

They started, decades ago, as service agencies for hunters and ranchers, and have continued to exhibit that bias in succeeding decades.  Even today, the vast majority of fish and wildlife commissioners and agency personnel in Washington and other states are drawn from those backgrounds and possess those pro-wildlife-use belief systems.

In a world where animal-protection ideals are ascendant, and most citizens embrace the idea that gratuitous killing and inhumane methods of killing are wrong, there’s been a growing disconnect between fish and wildlife agencies and the larger body public.  Agency materials often refer to wildlife as “game” to be “harvested” on a “sustained yield basis,” as if the animals were corn or other crops.  It’s an agriculture philosophy applied to wildlife management.

That’s long meant curtains for predators.  The ranchers and the hunters complained about them and saw them as threats. And they got their way, as state and federal agents, trophy hunters, and the ranchers themselves took matters into their own hands.

“Wolves do not purchase hunting licenses, and most state wildlife managers draw their pay from revenue derived from the sale of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses,” wrote Ted Williams, himself a hunter and one of the most accomplished nature and outdoor writers in the contemporary era. “That, in brief, is what is wrong with wildlife management in America.”

Many deer and elk hunters have long viewed wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and even bears as competitors for big game. Every deer or moose lost to a wolf, Williams famously said, is one less license fee paid to the state. That’s been the crude calculus of many leaders in wildlife management.

That translates into authorizing bounties, spring hunting or even year-round hunting, baiting, hounding, trapping, archery seasons, permissive or no bag limits, and, in terms of federal wildlife control activities, aerial gunning and poisoning. The goal was to eliminate or, in more recent times, to drive down the populations of wolves, mountain lions, bears, and coyotes. It’s been a strategy of limiting their range and keeping the animals in small, isolated pockets.

Many states have even sanctioned “wildlife killing contests,” where hunters shoot as many animals as they can find and kill, with shooters who amass the biggest body counts claiming prizes. (This year, AWA happily pushed for and won a regulatory ban on contest kills in Arizona, and New Mexico advocates secured a legislative a ban there.

Until recently the only meaningful pathway to stymie these appalling predator-killing practices was through the launching of ballot initiatives — to stop trophy hunting of lions and wolves, to ban baiting and hounding of predators, and to restrict the use of cruel traps.  This process, available to citizens in about half the states, allowed animal groups to circumvent agencies and key legislative committees captured by hunting and ranching interests and to forbid appalling practices.

Only in California are state legislatures and wildlife commissioners fundamentally changing wildlife policy. This year, California lawmakers banned all trophy hunting of bobcats and also any trapping of animals for recreation or commerce in fur – the latter gain fortifying a ballot initiative against trapping that dramatically shrank the industry two decades ago. In recent years, lawmakers there also stopped the use of lead ammunition in sport hunting and barred hounding of bears.

It’s time for Governor Inslee to break the grip that the ranching and trophy hunting lobbies have on wildlife policy in Washington.  It can start with wolves, but the department and other state fish and wildlife agencies should apply anti-cruelty principles when they conduct wildlife management programs for all species.  The Department is allowing trophy hunters and timber companies to have their way with black bears and cougars, and their actions are subverting a voter-approved ballot initiative that sought to enhance protections for these species. It’s time that the agency recognized that all of these predators have a place on the landscape and they should be protected from people who want to kill them in head-hunting exercises or merely out of hatred or an instinct to dominate other powerful species, or a poor understanding of ecology and the role of apex predators.

You can write to Governor Inslee to express your thanks for his intervention to help the wolves.  And special thanks to Washingtonian Jennifer McCausland for doing so much to fight for the wolves.

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