July 15, 2009

By Joyce Campbell

Two breeding gray wolf packs with pups have been confirmed in Washington state after state and federal wildlife researchers conducted howling surveys in Okanogan and Pend Oreille counties last week.

A howling survey by a state wildlife biologist at dusk on Friday (July 10) confirmed that the Methow Valley’s gray wolves, the Lookout Pack, have a new litter of pups.

“It’s official, we definitely have a second litter,” said Scott Fitkin, biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I howled out the pack. It’s anybody’s guess how many pups there are.” Fitkin set up the howling survey to confirm the presence of pups after efforts to get images of the pack on remote sensor cameras were unsuccessful.

Time was running out to try and confirm the presence of the pups, said Fitkin. “In three weeks they could make a break for the high country and stay all summer.” The wolves have moved from their denning site to a new rendezvous area, said Fitkin. The rendezvous is about three miles from last year’s rendezvous in the Lookout Mountain area southwest of Twisp.

Fitkin and U.S. Forest Service biologists are eager to document the den site.

“We haven’t wanted to disturb them,” said Bill Gaines, wolf specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Gaines said he is anxious. The biologists didn’t find the den site last year and want to see what the wolves have been using for a structure and what they’ve been eating from the bones around the den.

“We’ll analyze the scat and get an estimate of the number of pups,” said Gaines. Genetic analysis can identify individuals and provide numbers.

“There were indications from monitoring that the male and one of last year’s pups were supporting the female,” said Gaines. He saw the pup while tracking the radio-collared adults in the spring. “It was like a dog, jumping and playing tug of war with Mom,” said Gaines. He said it looked smaller and still had a softer, rounder character and was “pretty magical to watch.”

Wolf pups typically suffer 40 to 50 percent mortality from natural causes. Gaines said he is disconcerted and disappointed by the apparent survival of only one of the pack’s six pups from last year. A federal poaching investigation may account for one pup’s death, but typically pups stay with the pack. “They have a lot to learn about hunting and territory. A year-old pup is not an effective hunter. It would be very unusual for the other puppies to leave so soon.”

Meanwhile, a howling survey in northeast Pend Oreille County earlier that same day confirmed a second wolf pack is raising pups in Washington state, according to Harriet Allen, manager of the endangered and threatened species section for WDFW.

“This is very good news. We’ve been suspicious of activity there for several years,” said Allen. DNR biologist Scott Fisher heard the howling of the pups during a howling survey, according to Allen. The howling response means the state has a second resident wolf pack.

Allen said there had been a pattern of reported wolf activity and DNR biologists were using remote motion-sensor cameras in May to record the presence of wolves.

They retrieved images that showed what appeared to be two wolves together, including a lactating female, indicating that she is nursing pups, according to a WDFW news release on July 10. Genetic tests on a hair sample from the camera site confirmed it was from a male wolf related to wolves from southern Alberta/northern Montana.

The state wildlife agency is preparing for wolf recovery in the state by drafting a wolf conservation and management plan with the help of the 17-member citizens’ Working Wolf Group. WDFW staff are addressing more than 600 comments by 43 scientists on the draft plan.

The state’s Working Wolf Group, composed of wolf conservation representatives, ranchers and hunters, will meet in Ellensburg Sept. 1-2 to review the draft plan and comments. The meeting is open to the public and will be posted on the agency’s website.

The draft plan will be available for a three-month public review by the end of September, said Allen. She said 12 public meetings would be scheduled throughout the state during the comment period.

The draft plan, facts and information on the wolf and how to report sightings may be viewed at www.wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/diversty/soc/gray_wolf/.