Gray wolf

Gray wolf

File photo

SPOKANE (AP) — A bill proposed by an Eastern Washington lawmaker who says wolves should be relocated to parts of the state where the animals are more popular was set to be heard Thursday by a legislative committee.

Eleven of the 14 wolf packs in the state are located in the district of Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. The packs have created conflicts with ranchers and other residents.

His bill is one of several wolf-related measures scheduled to be heard in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources in Olympia.

Other bills would order the state Fish and Wildlife Department to manage wolf problems by lethal means under certain circumstances, and give the Fish and Wildlife Commission more leeway on changing a state endangered species classification.

Fish and Wildlife estimates that at the end of 2013, there were at least 52 wolves in 13 packs roaming Eastern Washington.

Wildlife officials say the state's best wolf habitat is the southern Cascade Mountains, where federal lands support more than 20,000 elk. Biologists believe wolves will naturally migrate to the area by 2022.

Kretz wants to speed the process and has introduced a bill requiring the Department of Fish and Wildlife to relocate wolves to other parts of the state.

"Most of the support in the state for wolves . comes from areas where there are no wolves," Kretz told The Spokesman-Review.

Last year he sponsored a bill to capture Eastern Washington wolves and transplant them to the districts of West Side legislators opposed to any controls on the predators.

Kretz said his new bill is serious and intended to speed up the dispersal of wolves, which in turn would hasten the removal of federal and state protections for the animals.

Under the state's recovery plan, wolves will remain a protected species until at least 15 breeding pairs are documented across the state for three years. Wolves must be geographically spread so there are breeding pairs in Eastern Washington, north-central Washington and a big region that includes the southern Cascades and Western Washington.

State officials and environmental groups prefer that wolves migrate to new regions on their own. Wolf tracks have already been found northwest of Yakima. Last spring, a photo of a wolf was taken in Klickitat County.

A proposed wolf relocation pilot project outlined in Kretz's bill would cost about $1 million, according to state estimates.

Kretz said ranchers in northeastern Washington need faster action to protect their animals from wolf attacks.

The debate over wolves illustrates a divide in the Pacific Northwest between rural areas and urban centers.

Rural residents contend their more liberal counterparts in cities don't understand the realities of living among predators, including the danger to the public and livestock.

Advocates contend the state is the native habitat of wolves, and the animals have a positive impact on areas where elk would otherwise destroy grassland.

Wolves were killed off in Washington in the early 1900s. But earlier this century, they started to return, migrating from Idaho and British Columbia.

Last summer was difficult for ranchers in northeastern Washington. At least 33 sheep were killed or injured by wolves and a cow and calf were killed.

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