Washington wildlife world watchers will recognize this refrain: The Evergreen State’s wolf population rose yet again over the past year – and it has topped the 200-animal mark for the first time in modern history.
Marking the 13th straight year of growth, WDFW released 2021’s annual report early this afternoon to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Agency wolf managers say there was a minimum – meaning, at the very least and highly likely to be many more, which WDFW readily admits – of 206 wolves roaming across the state at the end of last year, the lower ebb of the yearly cycle, a 16 percent increase over 2020’s count of 178, and reflective of a 25 percent annual increase every year since 2008.
As usual, the greatest wolf concentration remains in Northeast Washington, where there were 117 known wolves in 22 packs, followed by Central Washington north of I-90 (37 wolves in six packs), Blue Mountains (28 in five) and, for the first time in the annual count, one in the South Cascades. There were also 23 other lone wolves scattered around, including one in the upper Skagit Valley. Broken down by recovery region, there were 163 known wolves in the Eastern Washington zone, 42 in the Northern Cascades zone, and one – and possibly two, in late breaking news – in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast zone.
The number of packs and successful breeding pairs were also up, to 33 and 19, respectively, from 29 and 16 at the end of 2020, the agency reported.
All that growth – documented through radio-collared animals, WDFW aerial surveys and other means – occurred even as 30 wolves were known to have died last year, including 22 taken during tribal hunting seasons in Northeast Washington, four hit by vehicles, two removed by WDFW and a landowner to head off chronic livestock depredations, and a pair of deaths under investigation.
It’s no surprise, as wolves are a generalist species that will thrive wherever given enough protection, and they’ve enjoyed that and then some in the state. The report will be difficult for wolf advocates to drum out gloom-and-doom news over Washington management.
Despite the largest recorded mortality of wolves to date in 2021, state managers still saw good growth, WDFW’s Ben Maletzke told the Fish and Wildlife Commission today.
Among the new named packs are the problematic Columbia wolves of Columbia County – responsible for one-third of 2021’s depredated cattle – Keller Ridge Pack on the Colville Reservation, Dominion in Stevens County between the Dirty Shirt and Smackout wolves, and Shady Pass in Chelan County south of the fjord. A pack also reformed in the Sherman Pass area.
WDFW reports that three packs had 10 members at the end of 2021, including Leadpoint of northern Stevens County, Nc’icn on the Colville Reservation, and Lookout in western Okanogan County, while the Wedge, Whitestone and Strawberry, all in Northeast Washington, numbered nine apiece. The average pack size was 5.3 animals.
Yet even as the number of packs grew, some groups of wolves winked out, including the Naneum Pack, a pair of males between Ellensburg and Wenatchee that split apart in November.
Both wolves in the pack were collared and one, WA 102M, loped south to north through central Douglas County and around the northern rim of the Columbia Basin, swimming the big river twice, before settling in with the Stranger Pack of Northeast Washington, a 190-mile, 14-day trek, while the other, WA 109M, worked its around west around the northern, western and southern edges of the Teanaway Pack before finding a place to dart across I-90. Telemetry then shows it trotting through the Manastash and other game units on the eastern slopes of the South Cascades, “however it has not localized in any area thus far.”
One-oh-nine-M is the lone known wolf in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast Region, but Maletzke today reported what may be a different wolf recently turned up on a trail cam. To consider statewide delisting, under 2011’s management plan this zone (and the other two) must have at least four successful breeding pairs, a goal that at one time was forecasted to be reached as early as 2021, but at the current pace it will be years. The write-up for a population modeling project being worked on by the University of Washington suggests that “While there is uncertainty in model projections, there is evidence to support that grey wolves will start to inhabit the Southern Cascades by 2030, followed by the Olympic Peninsula by 2040.”
Indeed, Washington seems to be a source population for dispersers that go every which way but into the South Cascades, where they could help reach recovery goals, something that will give hunters pause but is also necessary to consider any sort of future season, though that seems a more distant possibility under the current commission. A Grouse Flats wolf wandered at least 890 miles through Northeast Oregon into Hells Canyon before zagging southwest into Central Oregon then Southcentral Oregon before its collar dropped off, as scheduled. And a Togo Pack wolf meandered 115 miles north into British Columbia.
The 2021 wolf report is also notable because it represents a return to a full state-tribal survey. The Colville Tribes, which consider wolves recovered, used monitoring methods that differed from those outside the reservation in 2019 and 2020, but returned to WDFW’s protocols last year, “so their numbers were folded back into the total count” for the report.
With wolves federally delisted in the eastern third of Washington in 2011 – and statewide for about a year before a judge earlier in 2022 reversed that – tribal hunters enjoyed a very successful season in 2021. WDFW reports the Spokane Tribe of Indians harvested eight of the 10 wolves in their annual quota, while the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation took 14 wolves from four packs, meeting tribal managers’ “preferred harvest target of 24 percent for a recovered population.”
There can be no doubt wolves are bringing down deer, elk, moose and other hunted species, as well as many others, but the annual report seems to indicate no tangible wolf impact so far on big game herds: “To date, most significant fluctuations observed in ungulate populations in Washington in response to major shifts in habitat quality and availability, weather, and disease occurrence that affect reproduction and survival acdross a large area, regardless of species or geographic region.” However, it does briefly outline ongoing research that will help flesh out their impacts, including the Washington Predator-Prey Project in the Okanogan and Northeast Washington, which looks at deer, elk, wolf and cougar interactions; interactions between wolves and cougars, wolves and coyotes and bobcats; and base work for what wolf recovery in the South Cascades will mean for elk.
As far as livestock depredations, WDFW reports five cows were confirmed killed by wolves and eight injured by the predators, and the deaths of two calves and injuries to six more were classified as probable wolf attacks. Eighteen percent of the state’s packs depredated. The figures are nearly all below 2020 levels.
WDFW reports spending about $125,000 less on all facets of wolf management, $1,421,393, than the year before, with the receipts showing $1,062,952 of that for “wolf management and research activities”; $205,969 for nearly two dozen range riders; $111,649 to reimburse 30 ranchers for expenses they accrued under nonlethal conflict prevention agreements; $20,866 to settle four livestock loss claims; and $19,957 for lethal removal operations – $3,109.87 for the fruitless Togo hunt, $16,847.16 to take out two Columbia wolves in fall.
Nearly two-thirds of the overall wolf funding came from the sale of personalized and endangered species license plates, with 28 percent from the state General Fund, 5 percent from federal sources, 5 percent from the State Wildlife Fund and less than 1 percent from wolf-livestock conflict funds. Removals appear to have been funded by unrestricted license sale funds.
At the behest of Governor Inslee and outside pressures, the agency is also currently in the process of proposing to amend its hard-won wolf-livestock conflict rules to further restrict wolf removals, and it was the subject of passionate public comment yesterday and this morning.
“Ranchers are frustrated, and we’ve had good meetings with the department. But this seems really punitive and we think the things that are continuing, the good coordination and good collaboration, can happen absent this rule,” state Sen. Shelly Short (R-7th District) told the commission yesterday.
However, others called for even more stringent rules that would give state wolf managers even less discretion, took issue with WDFW’s aim to more quickly take out wolves to head off further livestock and pack losses, and continued to attack the Diamond M and removals of five packs around the operation’s cattle since 2012.
You very rarely see it publicly with WDFW staff, but Julia Smith, the agency’s wolf policy lead, took a moment after her presentation on the proposed rules to share her personal perspective with the commission.
Pointing to Washington’s successful longtime collaborative approach to handling the recolonization of the predators and assisting livestock producers in dealing with it, Smith said she was “distressed that the narrative is dominated by this idea that we’re somehow failing in Washington when it comes to wolf-livestock conflict.”
“The fact remains that our losses of livestock and our removals of wolves are among the lowest anywhere, and our wolf population continues to bloom year after year,” Smith said.
Indeed, the latest WDFW annual report supports that strongly.
And in the end, most commissioners expressed interest in postponing a vote on those new rules, though for varying reasons, from it being unnecessary because the state wolf population is in fact robust and the removals of just two animals last year was essentially near-zero, like wolf advocates want, to fleshing out alternatives more to only a short pause before moving forward with it as part of a “paradigm shift” driven by global warming concerns.