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Wolves Continue Packing Into NE WA, State Population Grows 28 Percent

The Evergreen State’s wolf population grew by 28 percent last year, breaching the triple-digit mark and adding a new pack in both corners of Eastern Washington.

WDFW’s annual wolf report says there were a minimum of 115 wolves in 20 packs, 10 of which were classified as successful breeding pairs, at the end of 2016.

That’s up from 90, 18 and eight coming out of 2015, and five, one and one in 2008, the first year wolves were confirmed recolonizing the state.

A WASHINGTON WOLF CAUGHT ON A WDFW CAMERA. (WDFW)

Once again the bulk of the numerical growth occurred where it’s not necessarily needed, at least to meet delisting benchmarks under the agency’s management plan for the species.

There are now 17 packs in the federally delisted eastern third of the state, including last year’s new Sherman and Touchet Packs.

Agency directorJim Unsworth says that that growth “underscores the importance of collaborating with livestock producers and local residents to prevent conflict between wolves and domestic animals.”

There are still only three packs in the North Cascades zone and none in the South Cascades.

Hunters may be buoyed to know that no wolves were known by state biologists to be running with the state’s two largest bunches of elk — the St. Helens and Yakima herds — as 2016 came to a close, but until the current wolf plan is changed, both zones require at least four successful breeding pairs three years in a row to match regional recovery goals set back in 2011.

There has, however, been increasing talk that perhaps the packs in Northeast Washington should be managed differently than those elsewhere in the state. Hunters and livestock producers have been there for awhile, but as a Fish and Wildlife Commissioner recently put it, while the species is technically still recovering statewide, they’ve already done so there.

Earlier this winter, while WDFW expressed opposition to a bill in the state legislature that would have regionally delisted wolves, wolf manager Donny Martorello added, “We do believe it’s time to begin the discussion for reviewing the plan,  talking about adaptive changes and even postdelisting management. It’s been nearly six years since the plan was adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and it was intended to be an adaptive document.”

Overall, the 2016 report shows that Washington’s wolves continue to prosper despite lethal removals for livestock depredations (seven members of the Profanity Pack last year),  increasing tribal harvest (three killed by Colville and Spokane hunters), poaching (at least two, with the cause of death of two others listed as unknown), and natural dispersal.

Telemetry from radio-collared wolves show that three went for out-of-state walkabouts. A Teanaway female went due north into British Columbia, a Huckleberry member went a straight-line distance of nearly 400 miles southwest into Montana and ended up near White Sulphur Springs, while a Smackout wolf is heading through the Idaho Panhandle, destination unknown.

But another wolf that wandered out of Northeast Oregon formed half of the new Touchet Pack in the western Blue Mountains.

The Sherman Pack was formed by a nearby Profanity Peak Pack member.

With the Sherman and despite most of the Profanities having been taken out, there are still a minimum of 80 wolves in Northeast Washington, up from 63 in 16 packs last year.

WDFW reports six wolves in Southeast Washington’s two packs, and 16 in the three in the North Cascades, up one and one, and four and none, respectively.

And it says that there are at least 13 lone wolves wandering the landscape of the state, up from 10 in 2015.

WDFW’S 2016 YEAR-END WOLF MAP SHOWS THE ROUGH BOUNDARIES OF THE STATE’S 20 KNOWN PACKS, INCLUDING TWO NEW ONES CONFIRMED LAST YEAR, SHERMAN AND TOUCHET, ON EITHER SIDE OF EASTERN WASHINGTON’S FEDERALLY DELISTED ZONE. (WDFW)

Like always, WDFW says these are minimum figures and that there are likely more on the landscape.

“We know there are more wolves out there,” says Martorello. “These figures are just what we’ve observed.”

A page the agency collects citizen reports at includes numerous unconfirmed observations around the state. While many don’t seem plausible because of their location or description, one from just a week ago notes a group of five chasing elk off a national forest road between Wilkeson and Mt. Rainier.

“It greatly helps (WDFW) staff in finding new packs if people would call in tracks or sightings to the hot line,” urges Dave Duncan, a lifelong hunter and cattleman who represents Washingtonians for Wildlife Conservation in a state wolf advisory panel.

“We all know that there could be a pack or packs that are not found or identified at the time of their annual census, and single wolves roaming the landscape just have to be an estimate,” Duncan says.

He says he thinks WDFW’s wolf workers are “doing a great job overall.”

A lot of that work last year centered on wolf-livestock conflicts, and 2016 matched a well-established pattern across the Northern Rockies in which 20 percent of packs get in trouble, which four of the 20 in Washington did.

Nine cattle were confirmed to have been killed by wolves while another six were injured by packs. Six more dead cattle were probable wolf depredations, as was the attack on a dog.

“WDFW processed 4 claims and paid a total of $12,330.85 to compensate livestock producers who experienced direct livestock losses caused by wolves.  In 2016, the Livestock Review Board recommended payments in full to two claimants and WDFW subsequently paid a total of $65,648.19 for indirect losses possibly caused by wolves,” the report states.

As wolf numbers grow, more and more ranchers appear to be taking deterrence measures to prevent livestock attacks, according to a WDFW graph out earlier this week.

“We know that some level of conflict is inevitable between wolves and livestock sharing the landscape,” says Martorello. “For that reason, we are encouraged by the growing number of livestock producers using proactive, non-lethal measures to protect their herds and flocks over the past two years.”

Conservation Northwest’s Chase Gunnell said the organization was buoyed that wolf population was expanding “and that participation in conflict avoidance efforts are going up as well.”

As for other facts and figures, WDFW reports that in 2016, 15 wolves were captured and collared by state, tribal and university researchers, that 25 in 13 different packs were monitored, and that the average pack size was 5.1 members, with the high end being 13 and the low — and the definition of a pack — being two wolves traveling together.

The agency reports 35 pups survived to the end of the year, though how they’ve fared in what will go down as a severe winter is unknown.

As for how much it cost the state to manage wolves last year, that figure came in at $973,275, which doesn’t include expenses for range riders, livestock loss compensation, Damage Prevention Cooperative Agreements, or the contract with a facilitator to work with WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group.

That panel of ranchers, hunters and wolf advocates reached a key consensus on lethal removal protocols last spring, and it was put to the test shortly afterwards not only by the Profanity Peak Pack’s depredations, but errant statements from a Washington State University professor and out-of-state wolf fanatics. But they held together, and an excellent Bloomberg article outlined that “delicate dance.”

This year they will consider if probable wolf attacks should count as “qualifying depredations” that build towards lethal removals where now only confirmed ones are.

Of the nearly $1 million spent on actual wolf management and monitoring, WDFW reports 93 percent came from state funds  “which came from a combination of additional fees for the registration of personalized and endangered species license plates and legislative funding,” and the other 7 percent came from federal grants.

WDFW’s yearly update also includes a section outlining ongoing research into wolves’ impacts on other critters, including the agency’s recently launched Predatory-Prey Project, as well as some interesting initial details from a University of Washington study of whitetail and mule deer and wolves in eastern Okanogan County that we’ve written about before.

According to a write-up, researchers found that deer mortality was no different between wolf and nonwolf areas, but that muleys and flagtails did use different habitats where their range overlapped with Canis lupus and where it didn’t.

“The scale of shifts in habitat use patterns depended on the escape behavior of each prey species and its effectiveness in different landscape types in relation to wolf hunting behavior. Mule deer responded to wolf utilization distribution at the landscape level. Animals in wolf areas used steeper slopes, areas farther away roads, and more forested areas, compared to animals in non-wolf areas. This is likely an attempt to reduce encounter rates with wolves. White-tailed deer responded to wolf utilization distribution at the fine scale. Animals in wolf areas used more gentle slopes, areas with greater visibility, and fewer obstacles to escape, compared to animals in non-wolf areas. This is likely an attempt to aid early detection of wolves and greater chance of escape following detection. These analyses have been written up and are in the process of being submitted for peer-review in a scientific journal …” researchers state.

It will be interesting to see if other studies bear these results out, but hunters may use the information to their advantage when pursuing deer in Washington’s wolf country.

“WDFW will have to balance a fine line of ensuring wolf recovery, while preserving hunting opportunities, and protecting ungulate populations, livestock producers, and rural communities from the effects of wolves. WDFW have a lot of very good people on staff to do the job and I have full confidence in them,” says Mark Pidgeon of the Hunters Heritage Council.

As for what 2017 will bring, that’s hard to say, but a WDFW document sent out earlier this week estimates that this year’s year-end minimum wolf count will be in the range of 135 to 165 individuals.

According to population modeling, delisting goals in the current plan should be met around 2021, agency staffers have said.

Martorello says he expects packs to form south of I-90 through the Cascades and that goals are on track to be met.

CNW’s Gunnell was more circumspect.

“We wouldn’t be surprised to see individual wolves confirmed south of I-90 this year; there were several reliable sightings in 2016 but no photographs that we’re aware of. However, at this point is difficult to confidently say if a pack will be confirmed in that area. Additional research may be needed to understand if human or habitat barriers are preventing wolf expansion in the South Cascades, and with it progress towards statewide recovery goals,” he says.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this blog gave an incorrect count for Washington’s 2008 year-end wolf population. According to WDFW, it was five, not ten as previously stated. Our apologies.