An out-of-state environmental group is trying to minimize the number of wolves running around Washington, but the year-end tally is likely to be significantly higher than their “approximately 120.”
That figure comes from a pressure ad by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity that appeared in the Seattle Times and is aimed at getting the governor to force WDFW to stop killing wolves in response to repeated livestock depredations.
It comes as the two parties are locked in a court battle over the state’s lethal removal protocols for wolves.
Twenty have been taken out by WDFW since 2012, an average of just three a year as Washington’s gray wolf population has more than doubled, but it still might have been the inspiration for a Central Puget Sound lawmaker to prefile a bill for the 2019 session along those exact same lines a couple days later.
Ultimately it all may backfire.
In response to CBD’s estimate, instate wolf advocates are indicating that there may actually be more than 150 wolves in Washington these days — even 200.
That higher number comes from Mitch Friedman, head of Conservation Northwest, which put out the lower figure in a post that Friedman shared publicly and in doing so offered his own guesstimate.
Those would be 23 to 64 percent increases over the official 2017 minimum (122).
The former is unsurprising, given the longterm 30 percent annual growth rate, and while the latter may seem shocking it is not outside the realm of possibility any more.
WDFW’s 2018 count probably won’t come out until March, like it has for the past five years, but for the first time wolf poop could help provide a much more accurate estimate of how many animals are really out there.
Earlier this year a University of Washington researcher was awarded a $172,000 grant from the state legislature to run his dung-detection dogs through areas where the number of public wolf reports has grown but no packs let alone breeding pairs were known to exist.
“If there are wolves south of I-90, the odds of the dogs locating them should be quite high,” Dr. Samuel Wasser, who heads up UW’s Center for Conservation Biology, told me for an April story. “Colonizing wolves range widely, our dogs can cover huge areas, and their ability to detect samples if present is extraordinary.”
With the 2018 field season over, the samples are now in the lab and being analyzed, and the data will also provide information on diet.
“It will be a little while because we are moving to Next Generation Sequencing, which allows us to simultaneously identify the carnivore scats and what they ate in a single run,” Wasser said by email this week.
Up to this year, WDFW’s year-end count has been a mix of collaring individual wolves and then locating them and their packs again in winter, when they’re easier to track or spot in the snow from the air, monitoring breeding pairs and collecting imagery from a network of trail cameras.
The agency has stressed that their annual tallies were just minimums, that there were likely more wolves on the landscape that had eluded them, and hunters have generally believed there to be many more than official figures.
So using DNA this new information could provide a closer estimate of the state’s actual population, not to mention possibly help us get to the wolf management plan’s recovery goals sooner.
As of this past March there was just one known breeding pair in the Northern Cascades Zone, the Teanaway Pack, and none in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast Zone.
Under the plan there must be four in each, but since that count there have been tantalizing public reports around Granite Falls, the northwest side of Mt. Rainier, and Stampede and White Passes.
Wasser says the new method for testing wolf doots his dogs find is just about dialed in, with results likely available later in winter.
“We are close to having it validated, using sample previously run using our old method from Northeast Washington,” he says. “Once that’s done, we will move forward with the Central Washington samples. That should move pretty quickly once we’re at the stage. We hope to finish the validations this month. If all goes well, we aim to have all our results by the end of February (or March), although that could be optimistic.”
The results could arrive just about the time that the Center for Biological Diversity and WDFW attend a court hearing for CBD’s lawsuit over the state’s development of the removal protocols. Both parties are due before Thurston County Superior Court Judge John C. Skinder on March 8 to review documents submitted in support of their arguments and determine when to set a trial.
By that time, it’s pretty likely that Rep. Sherry Appleton’s (D-Bainbridge) HB 1045, which would bar WDFW from killing cattle- and sheep-killing wolves and — hilariously — instead require the agency to relocate them, will have died without a committee hearing.
But not before it offered Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) yet another chance to needle Westside wolfies, this time to mull introducing a counter measure to designate Appleton’s island a wolf preserve.
In other Washington wolf news, in October WDFW issued a notice that it was beginning a periodic review of the species.
“Based on the information collected and reviewed, the department will make recommendations to maintain the species current listing status as endangered or reclassify species to sensitive, threatened, or other status,” the agency stated.
Public comment will be announced later.
And late this morning WDFW announced a confirmed wolf depredation of a calf on its Chiliwist Wildlife Area, part of the Sinlahekin complex.
The 400-pound animal was among a herd of cattle that had just been brought off of DNR land on Nov. 27 to a traditional gathering site on WDFW land and was found dead the next day.
The producer was advised to cover the carcass and did so, and on the 29th, an examination of the remains revealed typical wolf wounds along with the tracks of a single.
The incident occurred in the still-federally listed part of the state, in or very close to the Loup Loups’ territory, but in detailing the attack, WDFW did not attribute it that pack.
“No collared wolves were present in the area at the time of the depredation,” the agency stated.
It would be one of the latest if not the latest attack to occur in any year since wolves began recolonizing the state.