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Originally published Monday, November 28, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Guest columnist

Washington's wolf-management plan only a starting point

Wolves have returned to Washington state after a 75-year absence. Guest columnist Scott McCredie says the state's proposed new wolf-management plan is a compromise that should be considered only a starting point as wolves regain their foothold in the state.

Special to The Times

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I'VE been hiking through Washington's wilderness for 40 years, but had never heard this sound before. It was a primal moan that sent shivers down my spine: a long, low chorus of wolves.

Wolves recently moved back to the Teanaway drainage, but the odds of hearing or seeing them, I thought, were small. But here they were in September, within earshot of a public campground.

Wolf sounds, depending on the listener, seem to trigger three reactions — misinterpretation, celebration or alarm. So it's not surprising that a fierce debate rages about how Washingtonians should interact with these four-legged "immigrants." Soon a state-appointed committee of "stakeholders" will decide.

Hearing those wolves was a revelation in more than one way.

"Those aren't wolves," claimed a fellow camper from Cle Elum. When he was younger he used to tramp all around these mountains hunting deer with a muzzleloader. He knew this place. As he talked, the howling started again and I stopped him. "Nah, coyotes," he said with conviction. "We got lots of coyotes here." Later, a woman walking her dog said she thought they were "just dogs."

It's easy to understand their incredulity. Wolves have been mostly absent from Washington for about 75 years. In the early 20th century they were ruthlessly shot, trapped and poisoned into oblivion, the object of rage and hatred from cattlemen, sheep ranchers, hunters and the government.

The Teanaway pack is part of a new migration of wolves that have been ghosting across the Canadian border the past few years. About 30 of them, in five packs, have returned to places their ancestors lived for at least several thousand years.

Although wolves have been gone so long that people have forgotten their sounds, they are going to need all the friends and supporters they can get. And soon.

Why? Because the descendants of those who exterminated Washington's wolves haven't forgotten them. Many have inherited the same wolf hatred of their ancestors. The only good wolf is a dead wolf. Save an elk — shoot a wolf.

The battle lines have been drawn. Washington wolves have already been illegally shot and killed by poachers near Twisp. A recent public hearing on the state's pending Wolf Conservation and Management Plan swarmed with anti-wolf sentiment.

But times have changed. A wilderness ethic runs strong through a majority of Washingtonians. According to a statewide poll, most people want to give wolves a fair shake, a chance to reclaim their ancestral homeland. It's the right and fair thing to do.

It's also fair, I think, to ease the fears of stockmen by compensating them for the inevitable (but mostly minor) losses wolves will inflict on their herds. Ranchers and hunters may have to adopt new tactics in the presence of wolves, but other states, like Minnesota, have shown it's possible to coexist with them.

Creating a sustainable wolf population is the paramount issue. Policy and "management" should flow from that premise. The state's wolf plan, as it stands, is a compromise that gives wolves a claw-hold in the state, but not much more. If a wolf were on the committee, he'd be growling the equivalent of "Are you kidding me?"

Wolves, if they had a vote, would turn it down for being too stingy. The plan, for instance, would permit the legal killing of wolves when their numbers reach just 150 or so, probably not enough for a genetically diversified, sustainable population.

Yet most pro- and anti-wolf factions believe it's a workable plan. So let's start with that, but be willing to adjust quickly if wolves don't thrive or herders need more help.

My hope is that all Washingtonians get the chance to hear and know the songs of wolves resonating across the land. To me, they are a powerful voice of wilderness, a sign that nature is restoring its lost balance.

Scott McCredie is a Seattle journalist who writes about science, health and nature.

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