April 15, 2009

WDFW says most people support natural return of wolves to state

By Joyce Campbell

Three members of Washington’s wild gray wolf pack were observed last week, including the alpha female who “looked to be very pregnant.”

“We saw two collared wolves and one of last year’s pups. They all looked healthy,” said Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologist for the Okanogan District of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fitkin and regional wildlife biologist Matt Monda were conducting a mule deer survey for WDFW when they spotted the wolves in the Lookout Mountain area near Twisp.

The wolf pack has been monitored by radio telemetry since July 18, 2008, when an alpha male and female pair of gray wolves were captured and fitted with radio collars by a team of state and federal wildlife staff. The same day, a conservation organization’s remote camera captured photos of six pups believed to be the pair’s offspring.

“We’re continuing monitoring with intensive, but non-intrusive ground monitoring to pinpoint the den and pup production,” said Madonna Luers, spokesperson for the WDFW. “Most folks are supportive and appreciative of this natural return of wolves to Washington with this pack.”

Historically, gray wolves were common throughout most of Washington before 1800, according to the draft wolf plan currently being developed by the state wildlife agency. Hunting, trapping and government-sponsored predator control efforts had extirpated gray wolves by the 1930s in Washington state. In one study, the Forest Service estimated that only about 10 wolves in total survived on national forest lands in the state by 1939.

By the 1980s, recorded confirmed observations were infrequent. While collecting grizzly bear data in 1989 for WDFW, Fitkin started getting wolf reports. Most of the reports, particularly the more credible and interesting ones, were from remote locations in the summer in the Pasayten, the Chelan-Sawtooth crest and Twisp River, said Fitkin. There were some good sightings at Ross Lake. He briefly glimpsed and heard the howling of wolves in Black Pine Basin, above Mazama.

In 1989, a team of Canadian biologists from British Columbia met with their American counterparts to let them know that more wolves were being sighted across the border and might show up in Washington, recalled Bill Gaines, forest biologist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Confirming identification of a pure wild wolf was a problem before the recent introduction of DNA data and technology, said Gaines. He said there were incidents of people releasing hybrid wolf-dogs into the wild and people became skeptical. “It was always a clouded issue,” he said.

To confirm an observation of a rare species on the federal endangered species list, a verifiable record is required, according to forest biologist Bob Naney. With today’s technology, that means a DNA report, a clear photograph or a dead animal.

“Starting two to two-and-a-half years ago, there have been more consistent reports,” said Naney. Before that there were no reports during winter, when biologists thought the wolves would have been at lower elevations near deer winter range.

Most reports were anecdotal, but responses to a howling survey and remote camera photographs led wildlife agencies to radio-collar and monitor a pair of wolf-like canids in the Lookout Mountain area southwest of Twisp last July. DNA samples came back positive for pure gray wolf, genetically connected to wolves in Canada.

“As far as we know, nobody brought them in. They’ve been here since I came here in 1991,” said John Rohrer, biologist for the Methow Valley Ranger District. He said the DNA tests are consistent with wolf samples from southern coastal British Columbia.

“When people say someone drove to Canada to get the wolves, that’s impossible. I don’t buy the rumors,” said Gaines. He said there has been no agency effort to re-introduce wolves into the North Cascades. He said gray wolves are occasionally hunted and trapped just north of the border and have possibly been dispersing for many years based on sightings.

Re-introducing wolves or having no wolves were two options ruled out by the group of citizen and agency stakeholders who began working on Washington state’s draft Wolf Conservation and Management Plan in 2006, according to Fitkin.

“Those were the only two absolutes,” he said.  If re-introduction of wolves had been an option, the animals would have been outfitted with radio collars and we wouldn’t have put them right next to people, said Fitkin.

For more information on gray wolves visit the Western Wolf Coalition websitewww.westernwolves.org or to view the draft WDFW plan visitwww.wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/diversty/soc/gray_wolf/.