By Ann McCreary
Wildlife officials have confirmed that five gray wolves, believed to be a breeding pair and their offspring, are living in the Lookout Pack territory in the mountains southwest of Twisp.
“As of late December … snow trackers were able to confirm five animals traveling together,” said Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “We’ve been able to document that the Lookout Pack is a breeding pair for 2013. We’ve been able to document at least two surviving pups.”
Decimated by poaching after the pack was confirmed in 2008, Lookout Pack wolves once numbered as many as 10 animals. For the past couple of years wildlife officials have been aware of two wolves in territory used by the pack, which was the first gray wolf pack seen in the state in more than 70 years.
A trapper working for WDFW will make another attempt, probably beginning later this month, to collar at least one member of the pack. The Lookout Pack wolves have proved “elusive” in past efforts to collar them, said Scott Becker, WDFW wolf biologist.
The Lookout Pack is one of 10 confirmed packs in Washington as of December 2013. Becker said wildlife officials have managed to collar wolves in eight of the packs.
Wildlife officials will be attempting to count the number of wolves in the state during the winter, to prepare an annual report in March.
“We’re probably more than likely to have a few additional packs, but can’t confirm until we get a better count,” Becker said.
State wildlife managers want to collar wolves in order to monitor them to prevent conflicts with humans and livestock, and to assess the recovery of wolves in Washington.
Becker said wildlife officials will traverse the Lookout Pack territory on snowmobiles in search of tracks to try to determine where the wolves are most likely to be found.
Then they will fly over the area in a helicopter and attempt to capture a wolf using a tranquilizer dart or a net.
“We’ll hit it hard [on snowmobiles] the week before we know when the helicopter is going to be in the area, so when we get up in the air it increases our potential of finding them,” Becker said.
He said the minimal snowpack in the mountains this winter makes the job of capturing and collaring wolves more difficult.
“In a lot of cases it’s easier to capture in winter because … deep snow restricts their movements,” Becker said. “If we don’t have snow there’s nothing to slow them down.”
In addition to the 10 confirmed wolf packs in the state, WDFW officials said in December there are two more suspected packs and two packs in areas bordering Washington.
Wolves are protected as an endangered species under state law throughout Washington, and under federal law in the western two-thirds of the state. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing wolves from the endangered species list around the country, and recently closed a comment period on the proposal.
Under the state’s Wolf Management Plan, wolves will be considered recovered when there are 15 successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years. The state is divided into three recovery areas and each area must have four pairs, with an additional three pairs located anywhere in the state.
While wolves remain endangered under state law, they are protected from killing and harassment. Once wolves are deemed recovered, they can be removed from state protection.