Washington wildlife commissioners visit 'center of wolf recovery' as public raises concerns about public safety, game populations
Oct. 29—COLVILLE — Citizens living in the "center of wolf recovery" told wildlife managers Friday that an increase in predators has stoked public safety concerns, decimated deer and elk populations and broken trust.
"You're at the center of wolf recovery," Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, told the nine assembled commissioners Friday. "The public does not trust the department right now and I think we have to fix that."
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-person, governor-appointed regulatory body, met in Colville Thursday through Saturday. The commission sets overall policy for WDFW and is tasked with preserving, protecting and perpetuating fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial harvest opportunities.
On Friday morning, about 60 people assembled at 8:30 a.m. to address the commission. Most speakers expressed concerns about a perceived increase in cougar sightings and worries about declining ungulate populations, which many blamed on increases in predator populations.
"Your policies are hurting the economy, devastating the ungulates and creating a very serious safety issue," said Dale Magart, the secretary of the Colville-based Northeast Washington Wildlife Group, which has about 40 active members.
The specific complaints are harder to substantiate, with experts disagreeing on whether cougar numbers are truly increasing in northeast Washington. Instead, some argue an increased human population combined with a decrease in habitat has pushed humans and cougars closer together. Additional factors, like an influx of home security cameras and several high-profile cougar attacks, may also be contributing to the perception of increased predator populations.
Still a WDFW review of cougar science found big holes in the agency's cougar knowledge concluding "that the roles of cougar removals; cougar population size; the abundance or diversity of prey; human population size, distribution, or recreation levels; human attitudes, and competition with other large carnivores in human-cougar interactions remain uncertain, due mostly to limited or poor data and shortcomings in analytic methods used."
There are similar questions — and concerns — about wolves' impacts on ungulate populations, with preliminary research from the Washington Predator Prey Project finding that the whitetail population in northeast Washington is "neither increasing nor decreasing," although that study ended before the deadly bluetongue and epizootic hemorrhagic diseases raced through Eastern Washington deer populations in 2021.
Deer and elk populations naturally fluctuate and are influenced by a host of factors, including logging, climate, habitat accessibility and predation.
But for most who attended Friday's meeting, the issue seemed clear.
"I can't tell my constituents, 'Oh there's not a problem,' " said Brian Smiley, a Pend Oreille County Commissioner. "They will laugh me out of the room."
Public safety was the other hot topic with numerous speakers expressing worries about predator attacks, despite attacks being rare. Several said they were afraid to be in the woods and recalled growing up 30 years ago with no fear.
There have been two fatal attacks on humans in Washington state, including one in 2018, and 20 attacks that resulted in injuries to humans in the past 100 years, according to WDFW. In 2019, a child was attacked by a cougar in Leavenworth and in June a girl was mauled by a cougar near Fruitland. She recovered.
The rural northeastern corner of Washington has the highest concentration of predators in the state. Previous concerns prompted the commission to liberalize the cougar harvest allowance in 19 game management units (GMUs) in northeast Washington in 2020.
Following the public testimony, several commissioners thanked the public for speaking. Commissioner Lorna Smith (Western Washington) noted that hunting participation has declined in Washington and WDFW is receiving more money than ever from the state's general fund, two facts that she believes means WDFW is trying to be "all things for all people and it isn't an easy role."
Commissioner Melanie Rowland (at-large position) also thanked the public.
"I don't know that we are ever going to reach agreement on this, but you are absolutely correct we should be listening," she said.