Time to rethink protection for gray wolf population

Gray wolves have thrived in recent years under efforts to revive the population in much of the western United States.

Wolves have benefited from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, as well as the efforts of some states to reintroduce wolf populations.

Our neighbors in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have seen huge increases in numbers since wolf-recovery programs began.

Washington state now has at least two established wolf packs for the first time since the 1930s. Just this month, Oregon wildlife officials confirmed three wolves have been using what's known as the Walla Walla Big Game Hunting Unit near Tollgate. Officials say the wolves could be using nearby Washington as their primary territory.

Wolves have been romanticized and feared for decades. A lone wolf is a standard in wildlife imagery.

But there's a reason wolves were targeted, trapped and eradicated from our landscape. They are one of the top predators on the food chain and don't distinguish between wildlife and domesticated livestock when hunting, prompting a life-or-death conflict between ranchers and wolves.

With 12,000 to 16,000 wolves now living in the United States, lawmakers from several Western states are pushing to remove the gray wolf from the list of protected animals.

Bills have been introduced in both houses in Congress. U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, head of the Natural Resources Committee, supports the idea of removing the protections.

"If they're not endangered anymore, then shouldn't some action be taken?" Hastings asked. If livestock are being harmed by wolves, "then there needs to be a way to deal with that."

In anticipation of a growing wolf population and the potential for federal de-listing of the gray wolf, our state has been working on a draft Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan since 2006. That plan is expected to be presented to the state's Fish & Wildlife Commission in August for review and approval.

Under that plan, hunting would be allowed once at least 15 breeding pairs of gray wolves have been confirmed throughout the state and sustained for at least three years. It's no surprise that lawmakers from Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah and Idaho are pushing for a change in the wolf's status.

Those states have large herds of cattle and have proved to be successful breeding grounds for gray wolves. Protections should be lifted if they're no longer needed to save the species from extinction.