RICHLAND -- A draft management and conservation plan released this week for gray wolves in Washington lays the blueprint for how the predators could eventually be delisted from state endangered species protection.
Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife is opening a three-month public comment period on the proposed plan with a dozen meetings around the state, including one in Richland on Oct. 21.
The meeting is from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory auditorium, 904 Battelle Blvd.
A final environmental impact statement on wolf recovery and management will be prepared after the public comment period ends Jan. 8, and the state's Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to decide next year whether to adopt the plan.
A 17-member citizen advisory panel provided suggestions to fish and wildlife staff in drafting the proposed, nearly 350-page plan, which would guide the management of a wolf population in the state while outlining non-lethal and lethal ways to address wolf-livestock predation and compensate livestockmen for losses.
And wolves could be relocated, or "translocated," from some regions of the state to another to reduce numbers in the one area and help hasten overall wolf recovery and eventual delisting from endangered protections under the preferred alternative management plan, said Madonna Luers, Spokane-based spokeswoman for fish and wildlife.
The preferred alternative is among four presented in a draft environmental impact statement for the state's wolf conservation and management plan.
There are no federal or state plans to reintroduce wolves in Washington, officials have said. But there already are wolves in the state, which wandered in from Canada or Idaho.
The state's first breeding pack in at least 70 years was confirmed in western Okanogan County in July 2008, and a second was confirmed this past summer in Pend Oreille County in the state's northeastern corner.
Biologists also are investigating reports of possible wolf sightings in the Blue Mountains, Luers said.
"We've yet to confirm a breeding pair there, which constitutes a pack," Luers said. "It's probably only a matter of time."
Gray wolves were delisted from federal endangered species protection in the eastern one-third of Washington this year. They are currently listed as endangered statewide.
Under the proposed alternative plan, wolves could be delisted from state endangered species protection if a minimum 15 breeding pairs are confirmed over a period of three years. At least two pair each would need to be in the Eastern Washington and Northern Cascades wolf recovery regions under the proposal.
Wolf experts nationwide reviewed the recovery numbers, with some saying 15 breeding pair of wolves were needed to maintain a self-sustaining population statewide, while others thought it was too high, Luers said.
But 15 is 10 breeding pairs too many for Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association and a member of the wolf citizen advisory committee.
Field had suggested in a dissenting minority opinion in the draft plan that the number be set at eight, but now believes it should be less because of the potential effect on livestock and deer and elk.
"There is no way in the world we have the habitat in Washington to support 15 breeding pairs," Field said. "The challenge we face is how to effectively manage a carnivore like this, and I think wolves have shown elsewhere they are pretty resilient.
"At the end of the day, I fear the hunting community will take the short end of this," he said.
In the draft plan, fish and wildlife staff wrote that it was difficult to predict what the effects of wolves would be on deer and elk, "but observations from neighboring states suggest that as wolf numbers increase in Washington, there are likely to be localized impacts on ungulate abundance or habitat use.
"Improved habitat management, flexibility in harvest strategies, and greater prevention of illegal hunting are recommended as measures for sustaining healthy ungulate populations that will support wolves and maintain harvest opportunities," the report said.
Managing wolves could cost the state an estimated $326,000 in the first year (2010) and up to $665,000 annually by 2012, according to preliminary estimates in the report.
The figure includes the proposed hiring of at least two wolf specialists.
Meetings about the wolf plan, which start Oct. 20 in Clarkston and end Nov. 10 in Wenatchee, will include presentations about the draft proposal and public comment.
Luers said fish and wildlife expects "lots of comments on this."
The draft plan is on the department's website, http://wdfw.wa.gov/wildlife/management/gray_wolf/.
Copies also will be available at the department's regional offices and public libraries.
Comments can be submitted online through Jan. 8 at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wildlife/management/gray_wolf/mgmt_plan.html, by fax to (360) 902-2946, or by mail to: WDFW SEPA Desk, 600 Capital Way N., Olympia, WA 98501.