July 30, 2008

DNA tests show Methow Valley wolves came down from British Columbia population

By Joyce Campbell

DNA tests show that the two adult wolves captured, radio-collared and released in the Methow Valley on July 18 originated in northern British Columbia.

“Definitely wolves,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin after receiving test results of the sample DNA.

The two animals are part of the first confirmed wild wolf pack in Washington state in more than 70 years.

Fitkin said they naturally migrated to Washington state and are not related to the re-introduced wolf packs in the Northern Rockies.

Since the capture and release, nine members of what is being called the Lookout Pack have been photographed by remote motion-sensor trail cameras by Conservation Northwest, a private non-profit conservation group working with wildlife agencies to investigate wolf observations.

So far, the trail camera team has captured images of two radio-collared adults, one adult or sub-adult wolf and six pups.

The pack could be larger, according to Fitkin, who is leading the monitoring of the collared wolves by radio telemetry.

There could be three or four adults, said Fitkin, who also listens to the howling of the pack.

Two things worry Fitkin: Human safety and property – livestock and pets.

“There’s a very small risk to human safety, and no evidence to suggest it’s a significant issue,” said Fitkin. “Serious confrontation between a person and a wolf is extremely rare in North America.”

“No wild wolf in North America that was not habituated by humans has ever attacked a human being,” said Madonna Luers, information officer for WDFW in Spokane. She said wild wolves may lose their wariness of humans when they become accustomed to repeated or prolonged exposure to people or food.

“I’m not afraid at all. I’ve seen wolves here and in Montana,” said Lucinda Jann, a Twisp River resident and wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. Jann has patrolled national forest trails in Montana since gray wolves were successfully re-introduced in that region 10 years ago. She has watched wolves from trails and from a canoe, and has been watched by them.

She said people need to look at a map of the Methow Valley and notice the relatively few valleys of private land in a vast area of wild lands. “Look at all the places where wild animals live. Wolves aren’t just in the valley,” said Jann.

“Keep yourself respectful of where you are, in other animals’ territory,” said Jann. As a wilderness ranger, she regularly encounters hikers with dogs. Dogs displace a lot of patterns, and people living in more remote areas of the valley or hiking on trails with dogs need to keep them under control, she said.

“If a dog is too far away, you don’t know what it is doing or what it might bring back to you,” said Jann. “If you are with a dog, get it next to you. That’s hard to do by voice. You should have a leash along and know your dog. If you know it’s a chaser, it’s not the place to let it run wild,” said Jann. Being respectful of wild things means keeping a dog under control, she said.

“I’ve always known there were wolves in the valley,” said John Doran, Twisp area horse rancher and packer. “I can’t imagine wolves becoming a problem.” He said he thought it fortunate that the valley is surrounded by forest and development is limited to private land.

“They are a sly animal and don’t want to be in the hustle bustle of the populated area,” said Doran. “I think they can live beside us.”

“I don’t think we need them,” said Jacqueline McCauley, a former trail cook who was born in the valley in 1914. “A few would be all right, if kept under control. People have a romantic view of the wolf and don’t look at the whole picture and what they do to the wildlife and other animals.”

“I’m not real fond of wolves at all,” said Bill White, a Twisp area hunter and rancher. He said he suspects that wolves killed and ate his best hunting dog. He said he found the dog’s radio-collar all chewed up. “They eat dogs. They like dogs,” said White.

“For the good of everyone else, the hunter and cattlemen will make sacrifices,” said White. He would like to see the verification of depredation include consideration of ranch records. He said it’s hard to prove wolf depredation, but he knows of one ranch that had a large increase in the percentage of “lost” livestock last year.

White said he is concerned that the confirmation of the state’s first wolf pack in Washington state will mean more restrictions for hunters and loggers. “The spotted owl destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs,” he said. “We don’t need another spotted owl.”

“We view them as a serious predatory animal,” said Twisp area ranch manager Shauna Hicks. The ranch had two unconfirmed calf kills last fall, according to Hicks. She said the ranch usually loses one or two calves a year on three grazing allotments, but last year they lost five on one allotment.

“By the time we were aware that we possibly had wolves on our range, there were no carcasses,” said Hicks. She said deer hunters found one carcass with the head chewed off and most of the meat gone.

“I don’t like them,” said Twisp area cattle rancher Chris Christianson. He said he is concerned that his range cattle will fall prey to the wolves. He said that last year a calf was killed on the range and another reportedly was running around with a chunk torn out of it. Without definite proof of a wolf-kill, there is no compensation, said Christianson.

A privately funded reimbursement fund for livestock and other domestic animals, including pets, has been extended to Washington state by the Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization.

“You need a verified wolf-kill, not just a missing animal,” said Tom Buckley, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Buckley said if you come across a predator site, treat it like a crime scene. Cover the carcass with a tarp to keep other scavengers off it, protect prints and scat with something like a coffee can and notify the state wildlife department.

State and federal wildlife agents respond to reports of possible wolf depredation and file an investigation report with the Defenders of Wildlife, according to Suzanne Stone, the organization’s Northern Rockies representative.

“If you suspect any kind of loss, submit a claim to us directly,” said Stone. If 100 percent confirmed, the group will pay 100 percent of market value for an animal. If evidence leads to probable wolf involvement, compensation would be at 50 percent of market value, according to Stone.

“Sometimes just a short-term solution can prevent any type of conflict from occurring,” said Stone. “If ranchers recognize that a possible train wreck is happening, we have a great record of finding solutions. It’s a lot easier than stopping conflict once it starts occurring.” For more information call Stone at (208) 424-9385.

To report wolf observations or activity call the toll-free wolf reporting hotline at (888) 584-9038. For concerns about possible wolf-caused livestock depredation, call the USDA Wildlife Services in Moses Lake at (509) 765-7962 or the USFWS in Spokane at (509) 891-6839.