Tag Archives: dr. samuel wasser

So How Many Wolves Are There Actually In Washington?

Are there twice as many wolves running around parts of Washington as WDFW’s minimum count suggests?

It seems more likely in the wake of a state Senate committee work session on the species Tuesday afternoon.

Information from it is giving Washington wolf world observers a chance to compare WDFW’s figures for parts of two northeastern counties with how many wolves that dung dog-gathered data says were actually there at the time.

Dung dogs would be canines that the University of Washington’s Dr. Samuel Wasser et al have trained to find scat. They’re so good that they can smell Puget Sound orca ordure a mile away, Wasser told senators.

On dry land between April 2015 and February 2016, they helped researchers sniff out 4,685 piles of poo in wild portions of Pend Oreille and Stevens Counties.

A MAP FROM DR. SAMUEL WASSER’S PRESENTATION TO A WASHINGTON SENATE COMMITTEE SHOWS THE ROUTES THAT HIS SPECIALLY TRAINED DUNG-DETECTION DOGS RAN IN AREAS OF STEVENS AND PEND OREILLE COUNTIES IN 2015 AND EARLY 2016, A PERIOD DURING WHICH FIVE KNOWN WOLF PACKS OCCURRED IN THE AREA. (WASHINGTON LEGISLATURE)

Their survey area that season overlapped the territories of the Smackout, Dirty Shirt, Carpenter Ridge, Goodman Meadows and Skookum Packs.

With 3,917 of the samples subsequently analyzed in the lab so far, 1,878 (48%) were determined to be coyote crap, 714 (18%) to be bobcat BMs, 541 (14%) to be wolf waste, 323 (8%) to be black bear brownies and 212 (5%) to be mountain lion leavings.

What the remaining 7 percent was wasn’t clear, but the scat not only told researchers what species excreted it (as well as what they’d been, er, wolfing down), but also allowed them to genetically identify the specific animal from whose alimentary canal it exited.

While counting wolves has been an inexact science up to this point, Wasser told members of Sen. Kevin Van De Wege’s Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee they were able to determine that those 541 wolf samples were left by 60 different individual wolves.

WASSER’S PRESENTATION OVERLAYS WOLF SCAT WITH KNOWN WOLF PACK LOCATIONS. (WASHINGTON LEGISLATURE)

He said his abundance estimate for the area between spring 2015 through midwinter 2016 was 68.

Now, it’s not quite apples to apples, more like apples to pears, but that timing does allow us to compare his findings with some from WDFW’s 2015 year-end count, which came out in early 2016.

The state agency estimated that the packs that left all that poop numbered at least 30 wolves — eight in Smackout, eight in Dirty Shirt, two in Carpenter, seven in Goodman and five in Skookum.

Thirty is, I want to stress, a minimum number, the confirmed headcount, but it is also a lot fewer than 60, let alone 68.

Hunters and others have long suspected that there are more wolves running around than WDFW’s minimum, and the evidence collected by scat-sniffing dogs from just one part of the state, albeit a wolf-heavy one, seems to bear that out.

So how might the state agency explain such a big numerical difference?

Partially it’s that this is a different, more precise way to count wolves than how WDFW has had funding to do it — collaring wolves and trying to find them and their packies later on.

But some of Wasser’s 60 known animals could have been pups born in spring 2015, defecated all over, but didn’t survive to the end of the year to be counted during the state’s aerial surveys.

They could have been dispersers from elsewhere that, say, ate a 49 Degrees North deer/moose/elk/cow/bird/rodent/snowshoe hare/etc., left a dropping or two and continued on their journey out of the area.

They could have been born to one of the packs, learned how to hunt and subsequently dispersed before biologists buzzed around that winter in the Cessna.

They could have been poached — state game wardens did find evidence that a man illegally killed at least two members of the Goodman Meadows Pack prior to a March 2016 search warrant on his cabin.

And it’s possible that at least three if not more of WDFW’s nine listed known lone/miscellaneous wolves in the greater Eastern Recovery Zone at the end of 2015 were in this area during the survey, so it’s the known 30 plus that many more.

Still, it’s eye-opening, and what’s more Wasser also told senators that during the following field season his dogs found evidence of at least 92 wolves in the same area, and he estimated there were 95 there then.

He said that between the two sessions of fieldwork, they found evidence of 114 unique wolves there.

The bottom line?

Later this winter WDFW will release its 2018 year-end minimum count. That figure is likely to be a lot higher than 2017’s 122, and it may also include new packs from a whole new area of Washington.

While state wolf managers have yet to confirm there are any wolves in the South Cascades, thanks to legislative funding, last year Wasser’s dogs found potential evidence in northwestern Yakima County and multiple parts of Skamania County.

ANOTHER SLIDE FROM WASSER’S PRESENTATION SHOWS ROUTES HIS DUNG-DETECTION DOGS RAN IN THE CENTRAL AND SOUTH CASCADES AND WHERE THEY FOUND POTENTIAL WOLF POOP THAT IS NOW UNDERGOING FINAL ANALYSIS WITH RESULTS EXPECTED SOON. (WASHINGTON LEGISLATURE)

Those feces are now undergoing final analysis with results expected soon, but if “potential wolf” droppings the dung dogs found in the known Teanaway Pack territory are any indication, it seems possible there may be a pack or two in the South Cascades.

Yes, wolves, wolf impacts and wolf people are pains in the ass to manage, but having four successful breeding pairs there is important to reaching the recovery goals that begin statewide delisting processes, and the sooner that occurs the better.

Well, the better for everyone except the groups that are trying to keep the species under kid-glove management, including through an upcoming court case against WDFW.

But this new data strengthens the argument that there are far more wolves in Washington, they’re likely far more widespread and they’re far, far more resilient than Arizona’s Center for Biological Diversity etc., want you to know.

Senators Briefed On Washington’s Wolves, Ongoing Research

No, wolves don’t have rainbows shooting out of their butts, but what is being excreted from the wild canids’ back end had the attention of state senators in Olympia this afternoon.

They learned that among the more than 1,100 scat samples collected in South Cascades by poop-sniffing dogs last year are suggestions that there are indeed wolves in a part of Washington that none are known to occur, key for meeting statewide recovery goals.

A SLIDE FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON’S DR. SAMUEL WASSER SHOWS ROUTES HIS DUNG-DETECTION DOGS RAN IN THE CENTRAL AND SOUTH CASCADES AND WHERE THEY FOUND POTENTIAL WOLF POOP THAT IS NOW UNDERGOING FINAL ANALYSIS WITH RESULTS EXPECTED SOON. (WASHINGTON LEGISLATURE)

And DNA from wolf doots collected in the state’s wolf-heavy northeast corner paint a highly complex picture of packs’ numbers, diets, movements and even pregnancy rates — one rising pack had three females in the family way, per se, at a single time in a recent winter.

Those were among the highlights of a presentation that Dr. Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology gave to members of Sen. Kevin Van De Wege’s Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.

IN THIS SCREENSHOT FROM TVW, DR. WASSER POINTS TO A SLIDE IN HIS PRESENTATION BEFORE THE SENATE COMMITTEE. (TVW)

WDFW and other UW officials were also on hand to detail the state of the state’s wolves and provide an update on a  big legislatively funded predator-prey study.

It was an interesting hour or so rich with presentations, graphs, maps that added to what’s known about the wild dogs here.

There were details on the diet of wolves in Pend Oreille and Stevens Counties — primarily deer but also moose and to a much lesser degree elk — as well as coyotes there, including a stronger percentage of moose than you might expect from the diminutive dogs — but are they merely scavenging wolf kills?

Just as senators heard that wolf and coyote densities differ markedly, they also learned that the predator-prey study aims to look at the effect of whether the former reduces numbers of the latter and thus their predation on fawns, as well as sort out the interactions between wolves and cougars and whether the big cats have to kill more often to make up for the wild dogs taking their quarry.

They learned that Washington’s wolf population continues to rise by an average of 30 percent a year, even as 22 have been killed to try and head off livestock depredations that have also occurred at a lower rate than in the Northern Rockies states.

And they saw how collecting dung with dogs and then sequencing it could give much more accurate wolf counts. Two years’ worth from Pend Oreille and Colville Valley packs show at least 60 different wolves and an estimated 68 there between April 2015 and February 2016 and 92 and likely 95 between October 2016 and June 2017.

“The dogs got samples from almost every single wolf,” Wasser said.

While WDFW has been careful to stress that its annual wolf counts are minimums and that more are likely out there, this new information will begin to put up a better ceiling on numbers.

After the presentations senators asked several questions, including one whether it was possible to breed for nondepredating wolves, which Wasser said was impossible.

Chase Gunnell at Conservation Northwest said his organization believes there are north of 150 wolves running around the state and was excited to see the upcoming 2018 year-end census.

“We strongly support the stewardship of these species, and believe wolf conservation and management must find a balance that works in the long run—for wolves, people and all the Northwest’s wildlife,” he said.

Cry ‘Hiccup!’ And Let Slip The Dogs Of Spoor

Dr. Samuel Wasser and his dung-detection dogs are set to begin searching for wolves in Washington’s South Cascades, where the number of public wolf reports is growing but no packs let alone breeding pairs are known to exist.

The University of Washington researcher heads up Conservation Canines, which received $172,000 from state lawmakers earlier this year to survey a 2,000-square-mile patch of countryside between I-90 and the Columbia River.

Conservation Canines field technician Jennifer Hartman and dog Scooby collect a sample during carnivore research in Northeast Washington’s Colville National Forest. (JAYMI HEIMBUCH)

Since 1997, Wasser and his rescue dogs have been deployed around the world to help monitor other species, collecting poop the pups find for labs to analyze.

Sending handlers and their canine companions into the woods and meadows around Mts. Rainier, Adams and St. Helens should produce results faster than leaving it to wildlife biologists chasing down intriguing leads or hoping to cut tracks in winter’s snows.

“Our goal is to maximize coverage of the study area, sampling all areas around the same time, within and between seasons to maximize comparison,” explains Wasser.

“Currently, the plan is for a fall and spring sampling, the latter being important to sample for pregnant females. We are still gathering data to identify the best sampling areas. Cost permitting, we hope to have four teams.”

While WDFW’S latest wolf map shows no known packs south of I-90 in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery zone, there have been numerous public reports in recent years from the mountains here, as an agency map illustrates. (WDFW)

Wasser has 17 dogs, including Hiccup, who’s also trained to find moose doots.

Which ones are deployed to the recesses of the Gifford Pinchot and south ends of the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests hasn’t been determined yet, but he’s confident in his pack’s abilities.

“If there are wolves south of I-90, the odds of the dogs locating them should be quite high,” Wasser says. “Colonizing wolves range widely, our dogs can cover huge areas, and their ability to detect samples if present is extraordinary.”

Under the state’s wolf delisting scenarios, there must be at least four breeding pairs here to meet the management plan’s current recovery goals.

If wolves are found, that might decrease the need to translocate packs here from elsewhere in Washington, notably the northeast corner where most territories are full and conflicts with livestock occur annually.

State wildlife managers haven’t been inclined to move wolves around, despite that tool in the plan, but earlier this year Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) successfully kick-started efforts to at least consider it.

Legislators also asked Wasser to gather data on the effect any wolves in the region might be having on predator-prey dynamics, and if they’re not, establish base-line data for when they arrive.