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A Step Closer 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "A & lt;/span & re there any of you who can't live with this plan and the minority report?" & r & & r & The ultimate moment in the adoption of a draft plan for managing wild wolves returning to the forested, Washington backcountry has arrived. The portent fills a seemingly teapot-sized, sunny building of tall windows and long tables at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.





Arriving at this moment took a year and a half of intense negotiations by 17 regular folks from around the state and nearly faltered at the end because of political pressures. But now, after an additional five hours of grinding over details, state-hired mediator Paul De Morgan finds himself calling the question.





"So... is there anybody not able to live with it?" De Morgan asks. He is facing a hollow square where 14 of the 17 remaining members of the Wolf Working Group sit as mute as poker players.





The silence suddenly takes meaning, and De Morgan lets out a breath.





"Whew! Congratulations. I know there have been some difficult conversations, but I applaud the effort you have put in," he tells the group last week.





The process of managing wolves in the state has only just begun. The draft agreed upon will now be passed along to biologists and other researchers for peer review. Then the plan will be presented at public hearings and finally sent for a vote of the Fish and Wildlife Commission -- probably about a year from now. And there are certain to be modifications along the way.





This is the same story that's been playing out since 1996 in Yellowstone and Idaho where the Rocky Mountain gray wolf has been reintroduced to old haunts after being extirpated throughout the West by the 1930s.





Now the story moves to the LeClerc Creek drainage in Pend Oreille County, just northeast of Spokane, where wolves are already roaming. It moves to the elk-heavy Blue Mountains around Dayton, where wolves have also been observed ranging over from Idaho, and eventually all the way to the Olympic Peninsula.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ast week's adoption of the draft management plan may have been the easy part.





Only minutes after De Morgan's sigh of relief, Othello rancher L.D. Green presented a petition with 700 signatures and read a letter suggesting there should be as few as three breeding pairs in the state before wolves are downlisted from an endangered species to a threatened one, and only eight breeding pairs before they can be hunted.





Jack Field, a working group member who ranches near Ellensburg and is vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, shook his head.





"There's a lot of great things in the plan, but it all comes down to the numbers, numbers, numbers," Field says.





Numbers -- as in breeding pairs as well as in the amount of money paid in compensation for wolf-killed animals.





The gnarly particulars of these numbers delayed the plan for nearly half a year. The working group appeared close to consensus in December, but when the group met again in March, the politics surrounding the federal government's "delisting" of the wolf as an endangered species that month drove a wedge.





Despite the federal delisting, the wolf is still a state endangered species. And until the state has a plan up and running, the feds won't let anyone get away with shooting a wolf in Eastern Washington anyway, says working group member John Stuhlmiller.





Some group members used the federal delisting to continue a push to halve the number of wolves proposed for Washington, which appears to have surprised the majority. The March meeting ended with frustration, venting and even a little name-calling.





Two efforts emerged. Duane Cocking, a former Spokane Valley hardwood dealer who represents hunters, pushed a minority opinion that at first included Field and Pend Oreille County Commissioner Ken Oliver.





Stuhlmiller, who represents the Farm Bureau, dove into a parallel effort to keep the rift from spreading.





He and Palouse sheep rancher Art Swannack, conservationist George Halekas of Deer Park, a wildlife biologist, and Colleen McShane, a wildlife ecologist for Seattle City Light, formed the "group of four" to preserve the plan's key objectives of both allowing wolves and offering management tools for people affected by wolves.





"While I take no delight in seeing wolves on a landscape with livestock ... they're coming," Stuhlmiller says. "I want to get a plan into state hands as quickly as possible so we can delist at the state level and provide maximum protection for producers."





The group of four shared this pragmatism and found ways to add flexibility to more swiftly apply compensation and controls without lowering the numbers of breeding pairs.





The draft calls for six breeding pairs spread through three recovery areas around the state for three years to get the wolf off the state's endangered list; 12 breeding pairs to be downlisted from "threatened"; and 15 breeding pairs for three years to be considered "recovered."





The minority opinion calls for three, six and eight.





At each step, increasing numbers of management tools come into play.





Last week in Ellensburg, Cocking, Field and Oliver attracted no others to sign the minority opinion. Two other ranchers on the working group say they would prefer to have no wolves, but since this is not possible, they appeared to be persuaded by the group of four's pragmatism.





Over the holiday weekend, however, Field persuaded ranchers Daryl Asmussen and Jeff Dawson to support the minority opinion as well as Pend Oreille County outdoorsman Tommy Petrie, Jr.





"There is no middle ground as far as wolves are concerned," Cocking says. "Although with the vast majority of the plan we did come up with middle ground."





Cocking says he doesn't know how the plan will play out now that a third of the group members support a minority position. Field says it comes as no surprise.





"I am pretty sure they knew going into it that this was a group divided," he says.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "W & lt;/span & hen they characterize the wolf as the demise of ranching in the state of Washington, that's way over the top," says group member John Blankenship, executive director of Wolf Haven, a sanctuary near Tenino for abandoned domestically raised wolves.





Blankenship previously worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is no stranger to wolf recovery plans. He worked on the three big ones -- Montana, Wyoming and Idaho -- in the 1990s.





"There is so much economic pressure on those guys," he says of ranchers, "and the wolf is the one thing they can put a finger on."





Statistics show far more livestock is lost to coyotes than wolves, it was revealed at the meeting. The goal of the draft is for wolves to repopulate public lands with an adequate prey base, limiting livestock conflicts.





"I absolutely have no problem with the control of problem wolves. They need to be dealt with when they are predating. But that story about the guy in Wyoming who chased a wolf on a snow machine for 30 miles to kill it -- that's not fair," Blankenship says.





Blankenship says 27 wolves have been killed in Wyoming since the federal delisting March 28. Last week the Idaho Department of Fish and Game laid plans to reduce its wolf population by more than 400.





"I hate to say this, but I don't believe we're going to see a lot of wolves in Washington. I really don't see the habitat out there like it is in Wyoming and Montana," Blankenship says, citing the Cascades, the Selkirks and the Blues as healthy wolf habitat along with the Olympic Peninsula.





To counter the divisiveness of the minority opinion, the group of four spent two months working via e-mail to keep the focus on the plan's main objectives. Stuhlmiller and Swannack spent most of last week's final meeting swatting down objections from fellow ranchers at the table.





"I very bluntly said this plan makes producers better off because we have a compensation package and the most tools of any plan in the West. Period," Stuhlmiller says.





"This plan does provide some first-time-ever management opportunities," Field says. "However the best plan in the world is no substitute for a lower population of wolves.





Now, everybody waits to see how many wolves actually walk in.





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