Friday, February 28, 2014

Social Carrying Capacity

animals.nationalgeographic.com
What is the social carrying capacity of wolves in Washington state?  In Eastern Washington?  In the Kittitas Valley?  How many of these elusive, graceful, cunning, politically charged predators can we tolerate in a humanized landscape?

At a Wolf Discussion organized by the Central Washington University Museum of Culture and Environment in Dean Hall February 27, 2014, these were questions brought up by the panel.  Scott Becker, a wolf biologist with the Washington Fish and Wildlife out of Wenatchee, Lee Davis the past president of Field and Stream, Sam Kayser from the Kittitas County Cattleman Association, and Jay Kehne from Conservation Northwest were the guest speakers invited to share their thoughts on these controversial animals making a comeback in our region.

Almost all of them were in agreement that the Washington Management plan for wolves set the desired breeding pairs too high.  15 breeding pairs for Washington state.  Three hundred wolves.  In a state with less habitat and a higher human population density, we want the most wolves.  Is this feasible?  It seemed that all of the speakers agreed it is not.  With the few wolves we already have in our valley, we are already seeing impacts to wildlife and livestock.  All speculation, but it can't be helped to link the elk, deer, and coyotes being down in lower elevations with the comeback of the wolf.  It can't be helped to wonder why cows are found miles from where they have stayed on allotments for 18 years.  Is this because they were tested by wolves looking for the weak?

This brings up many concerns for ranchers.  Their cattle might come down in the fall without the ideal weight.  The bulls or cows might be to busy running from wolves that they are not getting bred.  An open cow, not bred, happens.  But if it is happening at a higher rate because they are getting away from a predator becomes a huge concern for ranchers, who depend on calves to take to fall sale for their livelihood.  If deer and elk are kept lower because of wolves and are in hay fields, this is also a major concern for farmers and ranchers.  They will not have as much hay to sell or put up for winter to feed their stock.

Sam Kayser stated that this is where Fish and Wildlife have been proactive with the return of wolves.  The Range Rider program puts a human presence on the landscape while his cows are out in the Teanaway and Colockum allotments.  This deters the wolves from testing his herds.  Radio collared wolves make it even easier. The Range Rider can have access to the GPS and know where the wolves are to keep tabs on the cattle.  Another non-lethal wolf deterrent is fladry, a flag or something that flaps in the wind, that is put on fences.  But, as brought up by Scott Becker, that is a temporary solution. Eventually, the wolves will figure out that it will not harm them and they can go under.

Lee Davis, Sam Kayer, and Jay Kehne agreed that we should be allowing tags for wolves now, to manage populations that can grow quickly - 24% a year.  Wolves need to be managed like all wildlife.  Even wolf hunting is rarely successful.  Should we wait until populations are where the state wants them to be before we allow hunting, which is only 15% successful?   Wolves are largely in the eastern part of the state, yet managed from the western side - as Sam Kayser pointed out - Lewis, Thurston, Pierce, and King counties.  Do they have wolves?  Yet, it seems they want to see our state wolf-populated both on the east and west side of the Cascades.  But, wolves are not in their territory yet.  Those dealing with these predators are on the ranching side of the state.  Populations of wolves will be higher here before wolves make it to the Olympic Peninsula.  If they are able to disperse through the state.

It is a highly polarized topic.  There are those who do not want to see one wolf killed.  There are those that want to see them all killed.  The three S's comes to mind.  Shoot, shovel, shut up.  But, there needs to be a middle, as Jay Kehne argued.  There needs to be adaptive management.  There needs to be an understanding that the social tolerance of wolves must be included in the management plan.  Will 15 breeding pairs be too much for the social carrying capacity?  The answer, though no one came right out and said it, appears to be affirmative.  Davis stated that the state should shoot lower.  Perhaps a better number is eight breeding pairs and go from there.  Start small.  Wolves are here.  What's the hurry to get as many as we can?

Another agreed upon point was de-listing.  Wolves should be de-listed so that control of these animals falls to the states.  Put the power into local hands to better manage potential problem wolves.  The more wolves we have, the higher the likelihood for human-wolf interaction.  A habituated wolf is a dangerous wolf.  They are the Big Bad Wolf at your front door.  With the wolf federally protected, it takes away what the state can do to mitigate these problems before they become problems.

In conclusion, with so many right wing and left wing viewpoints on wolves, there needs to be middle ground.  Washington state has the advantage of learning from Wyoming, Montana, Idaho.  We have the potential to handle the comeback of wolves better.  Habitat is limited.  Human populations are here. It is a highly political issue.  But, as long as we work together and find middle ground, we can make it work and avoid the mess that places like Idaho have seen.  By working together, we can mitigate wolf impacts to humans, livestock, and wildlife.

Wolves are here.  They are here to stay.  By working together, implementing non-lethal, proactive measures, maintaining numbers to avoid conflicts, and giving power to the states, we can successfully have wolves in Washington state.

A/N: This was a quick write up.  The panel and audience brought up many points about wolves being in Kittitas Valley, in Washington state, but this was a quick overview of the main points..  Thank you for reading and feel free to leave your ideas and questions in the comments!