Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August issue of Northwest Sportsman, as The Big Pic.
Five-year study aims to reveal wolf impact on North-central Washington deer herds with unique new camera angles.
By Leroy Ledeboer
REPUBLIC, Wash.—No matter your stance on wolves – hate ’em, love ’em, or anything in between – it’s time to acknowledge they’re here to stay throughout much of Eastern Washington. Federal and state protections and wolf-rich bordering territories mean that new packs can move in to fill voids, or take over ones that are created. Prime example: When professional hunters exterminated the Wedge Pack that was preying on northern Stevens County cattle last summer, it was not long before at least three wolves showed up again.
Yes, wolves do impact our big game herds. But instead of wildly speculating on what that already is or will be in the future as more packs emerge – chatter that ranges from “They’ll wipe out all our deer and elk, then start in on ranch stock” to “They’ll simply improve our big game herds, weaning out the sick and the lame, giving the healthy animals better forage” – maybe it’s time for a real science-based study.
Now, thanks to a mix of relatively new technologies, teams of wildlife biologists willing to put in tons of field work, and a wide range of funding sources, that’s what we’re getting. It’s a five-year undertaking entitled the “Washington Wolf-Deer Project” taking place in large tracts of southern Ferry and eastern Okanogan Counties, including a good-sized chunk of the Colville Reservation. Using ear tags, radio-, GPS- and camera-equipped collars, as well as trail cams laid out in huge grids, biologists are studying mule deer and whitetail habits in four areas, two occupied by wolves, two without. The former are in the territories of the Colville Tribes’ Strawberry and Nc’icn packs, each with six or seven members. The latter are Forest Service land around Mt. Bonaparte and Tunk Mountain, both of which are also part of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildife’s Okanogan East Game Management Unit.
“We want to determine how deer behave when they know wolves are around compared to when they’re not,” states University of Washington PhD. candidate Justin Dellinger, who is conducting the study. “Are they more vigilant, constantly looking around, more alert to predation danger, thus spending less time foraging? And if so, what impact is this having?
“As we capture more deer in coming winters, we’ll get real data on whether or not the ones in the wolf zones have put on less weight during the good weather, thus going into winter with less fat reserves, and are they having lower pregnancy rates? Everyone understands that wolves do kill deer in their territories, but now we also want to know what their overall impact is. Does just having wolves around decrease a deer’s chances of survival or a doe’s chances of successfully rearing a fawn?”
DELLINGER’S INITIAL DEER CAPTURE season began in early January and concluded at the end of March. Using collapsible clover traps and drop nets, 20 whitetail and 18 muleys were ear tagged and fitted out with the new collar cameras – tiny cameras attached just below the lower jaw. As the study progresses, more deer will be captured and similarly outfitted.
“These cameras allow us to see everything the deer sees,” he explains. “Its daily habitat, other deer in its herd, as well as nearby predators – coyotes, mountain lions, wolves. They’re set for six hours per day, three hours in the morning, three in the evening, and then they fall off after two or three weeks. Then we retrieve them and have 80 to 90 hours of film to study.”
Remote cameras, very similar to a sportsman’s trail camera, are systematically set up over large grids. Triggered by movement, they’re aimed at capturing images of ear-tagged deer as well as anything else that moves in front of their lens.
“If after several years a deer tag doesn’t show up on any of our cameras, there’s a good chance that that animal is dead,” Dellinger says, “so at the completion of our study this will be one more piece of the vast amount of data we’ll have collected. Then using proven formulas, we’ll be able to determine survival rates in both wolf and nonwolf territories.
“Plus, these grid photos also give us lots of other valuable information such as deer movement and predator presence. We know that wolves don’t tolerate other canines in their territories, so there’s a good chance that the cameras in their zones will pick up fewer coyotes, feral dogs, even domestic dogs that free range, but will they also capture fewer mountain lions? So far the only camera-collared deer kills we’ve checked out were two does, both in nonwolf zones, both killed by mountain lions, but that’s too small a sample to conclude anything.
“Thanks to the cooperation of the Colville Tribes, we’ve also put GPS collars on three wolves, the two alphas in one territory and one subordinate animal in another. And we hope to get more wolves collared as our study progresses, giving us another set of data to understand what happens in the field. We already know that our wolf packs cover huge territories, one pack ranging over 275 square miles, another over 400.”
Why do wolves cover so much ground? Have they seriously thinned out one herd and so are simply moving on to find better prey numbers, or is it more complex than that? As hunters, we know that deer and elk wise up in a hurry, becoming much harder to find once a hunting season opens, so it stands to reason they become alerted to the presence of wolves just as fast. When their prey becomes overly wary, maybe that’s when the wolves pick up and move, increasing their hunting odds by pursuing less alert animals in their territories.
The Okanogan East GMU has been one of the state’s steadier producers of deer in recent years, with a rising harvest trend over the last decade. By state harvest data, general-season hunters killed 653 there last year, up 100 animals from how many were taken in 2003’s hunt.
A STUDY OF THIS SIZE COMES WITH A fairly hefty price tag, one that includes everything from the costs of all that high-tech stuff to travel to many man hours of in-the-field work, so it’s fortunate that so many organizations have stepped forward. The list includes the National Science Foundation, the University of Washington, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service, as well as two private groups, Safari Club International, a hunter-supported entity, and Conservation Northwest, a pro-large-carnivore organization based in Bellingham.
“Yes, it’s sort of a meeting in the middle,” Dellinger explains, “with everyone on board, all of them wanting the best data possible, recognizing that a lot of diverse interests have to be accounted for. Sportsmen need viable numbers of deer and elk to hunt, ranchers need to make a living, and now that wolves are back in the picture, we have to know more about their impact.”
Of course, no matter how informative this study is and no matter what its findings tend to show us, it won’t answer all our questions, and it definitely won’t be an end to the always-passionate debates over this large canine’s return to Washington. But it’s a very good start, a big step in the right direction, giving us a more accurate picture of the true impact wolves are having on our big game herds.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine. Special thanks to Justin Dellinger for providing photos for the print piece.