Fish & Wildlife hire merits watching

There’s been a lukewarm reception from conservation groups to the hiring of James Unsworth as the new director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They have good reason to worry. Unsworth comes from Idaho, a state known to be more committed to supporting ranchers and big game hunters than to preserving biodiversity in our ecosystem.

We had hoped the state would hire a visionary director who could lead the state toward a sustainable future for all species. Unsworth may ultimately prove to be that person, but his experience as the deputy director of Idaho Fish and Game causes concern.

Idaho has not taken a progressive view toward the challenges of wolf management, for example – certainly not one that reflects the values of most Washingtonians, nor one that has sought innovative ways of dealing with conflict between ranchers and wolves. And Unsworth faces immediate challenges about how to manage wolves in Washington.

Right now, radical ranchers and conservationists are waging a ridiculous billboard war in Eastern Washington. Some members of the agricultural community put up billboards designed to scare people about the “big bad wolf.” The billboards conjure up old myths and fairy tales about snarling wolves that might eat children. The conservation community has answered with billboards of their own.

This is not an intelligent or productive debate. It’s typical of what might happen in other states – Idaho? – but does not reflect Washington’s proud heritage of bold and courageous leadership that recognizes the value of settled science as a guide to decision-making to protect our natural resources.

The silly billboard war is a clear sign that we need a new approach to wolf management.

While it’s true that wolves have preyed on some livestock, it’s also a fact that more livestock has been lost to dogs, bad weather and disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2009, 2,100 sheep and lambs were lost due to causes not related to predators. And in 2010, more than 37,000 cattle and calves died from causes not related to predators.

Predators of all species killed only 1,700 cattle and calves in 2010. That includes coyotes, mountain lions, dogs, bears and others, including wolves. But wolves accounted for only 2 percent of the kills.

And, research recently conducted at Washington State University has found that killing wolves to manage the conflict with livestock actually fosters the reverse outcome. The study found that for every wolf killed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming over the past 25 years, there was a 5 percent increase in the sheep and cattle killed the next year.

The science shows that killing the alpha male or female causes chaos within the remaining wolf pack. Without the tight control of a leader, the pack starts breeding, and breeding pairs that need to feed pups are more likely to kill livestock than individual wolves.

This study, funded by the WDFW, should lead the department to discontinue killing as a means of wolf management. While Washington still protects wolves under the state Endangered Species Act, states like Idaho have recently allowed hunting of wolves after federal protections were lifted.

We hope Unsworth will embrace a commitment to sustaining healthy populations of all Washington’s creatures. Keeping as many species as possible on the landscape – biodiversity – is critical, and wolves are an important keystone species.