As my colleague pointed out, “It’s good to write about wolves; everyone is interested because everyone has an opinion.”
Wolves were functionally extinct in Washington from the 1930’s until the first breeding pair showed up in 2008. This season, wolves have dispersed into new territory on the westside, edging them closer to the state’s recovery goals. The state biologist from Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) recently presented on the state of grey wolves (Canis lupus) in the Evergreen State, and here are the take aways.
There are three recovery zones in Washington; eastern Washington, North Cascades, and South Cascades along with the NW Coast. The state has two possible paths to removing wolves from the endangered status, also called delisting. Each involves four successful breeding pairs in each of the three recovery zones. Along with those breeding pairs, one path has 15 total pairs for three years and the other has 18 total for one year. A successful breeding pair is a male and female that have two pups that survive through Dec 31. A pack, on the other hand, is two or more wolves traveling together through the winter.
This year saw the first pack in the South Cascade recovery area, as well as four new packs in the North Cascades and three in eastern Washington for a total of 37 packs in the state. As of yet, biologists haven’t found a successful breeding pair in the South Cascade region, but there are 20 in the eastern Washington region and six in the North Cascades.
Wolves will disperse to find new territories and mates. This year, we saw the formation of a pack on Mount Spokane with at least four individuals. There are individuals in the Sprague Lake area and Stehekin on the north end of Lake Chelan. A few wolves have even moved out of state to Oregon and BC.
Since the 2011 recovery plan has been in place, there has been an average population growth of 23% a year. This growth maintains even with wolf mortality. There have been seven natural wolf deaths that included cougars, moose, and old age. Tribes have legally harvested 11 wolves. Conflict with livestock producers has led to the death of six wolves by the state and three by producers when wolves were caught in the act. This season also saw nine unlawful deaths that are still being investigated. This includes six wolves from the Wedge Pack in Stevens County that were found to be poisoned.
Having wolves and livestock in the state doesn’t come without conflict. Seven packs were involved in livestock depredation, but only three packs more than once. There were 29 individual livestock affected with 18 deaths and 11 injuries. This is up slightly from last year of 21 instances, but much lower than the 44 from 2020. WDFW biologists state that these numbers are similar or better than other states where wolves are recovering. They also note that increased use of conflict management tools such as range riders, fence flagging, and sound deterrents are key to reducing livestock depredation.
Wolves and other large predators are integral to properly functioning ecosystems. They move deer and elk herds so that they don’t over-browse areas; they control populations of mesocarnivores, such as coyotes, thereby increasing prey for other species; and, in places like Yellowstone, their reintroduction has been linked to increases in and more resilient habitat. But the gray wolf has been back and forth as a federally listed endangered species. This has been due to politics, differences in distinct populations, and differences in state management strategies.
Currently, Washington wolves are federally listed as endangered in the western half of the state and state endangered in the eastern half. Wolf recovery is overseen by the US Fish and Wildlife in the western part of Washington and WDFW oversees it on the east—currently, they are considered two distinct populations. Recently there have been proposals for the state to move the eastern wolf populations from endangered to a lesser listing such as threatened or a species of greatest concern. This indicates that wolf populations are not in danger of disappearing in eastern Washington but are still a management concern.
An open comment period regarding the proposed downlisting of wolves in eastern Washington to the category of state sensitive species is available until August 19. This is part of a regular 5-year review process from WDFW. To leave a comment, visit https://publicinput.com/psr-gray-wolf. //
Adam Gebauer is busy trying to float the Spokane in any and every form he can; SUP, packraft, canoe, fly fishing raft, a few logs. He is also looking to hike, run, or bike the entire Kettle Crest this summer.