WDFW proposes gray wolves reclassify from ‘state endangered’ to ‘sensitive'

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By state standards, should gray wolves in Washington be designated endangered, threatened or simply sensitive?

To weigh in on that question, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife this week opened a public comment period that continues through May 6.

Currently, gray wolves fall under two separate classifications. By state designation, they are considered endangered across Washington. However, under federal standards, the animals are considered endangered in the western two-thirds of the state but threatened – a lower risk threshold – in the eastern third of Washington. And their numbers have been increasing over the past decade.

“Wolves in Washington have made significant progress toward recovery since their original state endangered listing in 1980, when there were no known breeding wolves in the state,” said Julia Smith, WDFW’s Endangered Species Recovery Section manager, in a news release Wednesday.

In its rule-making process, WDFW is proposing to change the wolves’ state conservation classification from “endangered” to “sensitive.”

“This recommended reclassification to sensitive reflects that progress and most accurately describes the current status of wolves in Washington, while also recognizing that wolves are not yet established in western Washington and should remain protected,” said Smith.

According to the department, the state’s wolf population has grown by an average of 23% annually since the agency conducted an initial survey in 2008. In 2022, WDFW and tribes counted 216 wolves in 37 packs, including 26 successful breeding pairs. Many of the animals are found in the timbered, mountainous northeast corner of the state.

The agency’s recommendation would not affect the wolves’ federal status in the western two-thirds of the state, where they would remain listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

State administrative code defines endangered as “seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the state.” In contrast, sensitive is defined as “vulnerable or declining and likely to become endangered or threatened … without cooperative management or removal of threats.”

Under the proposed “sensitive” status, wolves would continue to be protected from hunting, harassment, and “unlawful take.” Regardless of status, state law requires non-lethal deterrents in development of any conflict mitigation guidelines.

Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee directed WDFW to begin a new rulemaking process to guide when wolves can be lethally removed for attacks on domestic animals. Inslee’s directive was in response to a group of wildlife and environmental advocates seeking more protection for the wolves. By law, the governor can’t prescribe specific policies to be included in the rulemaking, but he recommended codifying a lethal removal protocol developed by the state’s Wolf Advisory Group.

Inslee’s order overturned a decision by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, which rejected the group’s petition last fall. The commission felt WDFW already had appropriate management protocols in place and a new rule was not needed.

WDFW staff is scheduled to brief state Fish and Wildlife commissioners on the proposed rule change during their monthly meeting in March. The agency is also in the process of compiling its annual wolf conservation and management report for 2023. That data will be presented in April to commissioners, who will discuss whether the information should be considered in reclassifying the wolves – a decision tentatively slated for their June 19-20 meeting.

Public comments will be accepted online at publicinput.com/sepa_graywolf, by email at graywolf2024@publicinput.com, via voicemail by calling 855-925-2801 and entering project code 6505, or by writing to: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, attn Wildlife Program, P.O. Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504.