By Ann McCreary

Gray wolves established four new packs in Washington over the past year, bringing the total number to 13 packs, and the state is home to five successful breeding pairs including the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack, according to a survey released Monday (March 10) by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

The Lookout Pack, which lives in territory southwest of Twisp, appears to be rebuilding after being poached into near-extinction following its discovery in 2008.

The first documented gray wolf pack in Washington in more than 30 years, the Lookout Pack once numbered 10 wolves and now has five confirmed members, according to WDFW.

The annual wolf survey estimates that there were at least 52 individual wolves in Washington by the end of 2013, one more wolf than in 2012. The number of breeding pairs remained the same from 2012 to 2013.

While the population of wolves remained virtually unchanged, the number of conflicts with humans and livestock decreased significantly last year compared to the previous year, Donny Martorello, WDFW carnivore specialist, reported at a meeting of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“While we can’t count every wolf in the state, the formation of four new packs is clear evidence of steady growth in Washington’s wolf population,” said Martorello.

Wolves are protected as endangered throughout Washington under state law, and are protected under federal law in the western two-thirds of the state, which includes the Methow Valley.

Federal wildlife officials, however, have proposed removing protection for gray wolves throughout most of the country, a proposal that has been endorsed by Washington’s wildlife agency. Last week 11 wildlife conservation organizations sent a letter to WDFW Director Phil Anderson urging him to rescind WDFW’s support for stripping wolves of federal Endangered Species Act protections.

A scientific peer review panel last month unanimously found that the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to remove endangered species protection for gray wolves does not reflect the best available science regarding wolves, and prompted federal officials to extend the comment period on delisting wolves until March 27. A final decision is expected by the end of 2014.

The conservation groups said the scientific review of the delisting proposal contained “substantial errors and misrepresents the most current science regarding wolf conservation and wolf taxonomy.”

The letter said the recovery of wolves in Washington is threatened by aggressive hunting and trapping in Idaho, which is a source population for wolves in Washington. The conservation groups also said 72 percent of Washington residents support continued federal protection for wolves, based on a 2013 statewide survey.

Combination of methods

In developing its annual update of Washington’s wolf population, WDFW used a combination of aerial surveys, trackers and signals from 11 wolves fitted with radio collars, Martorello said.

Three of the new packs were formed by wolves that split off from the existing Smackout Pack in northeast Washington. A fourth new pack, the Wenatchee Pack, appears to be made up of two female wolves from the Teanaway Pack, whose territory stretches between Ellensburg and Wenatchee.

A pack is defined as two or more wolves traveling together, according to the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.

Martorello said new programs designed to help livestock owners avoid conflicts with wolves were largely responsible for the reduction in conflicts last year compared to the previous year, despite the stable wolf population.

Stephanie Simek, WDFW conflict-resolution manager, said the department investigated 20 reported attacks on pets and livestock last year, but found wolves were involved in only four of them. One calf and three dogs were injured in those incidents, including a dog in Carlton that was attacked by a wolf on the back porch of a home.

By comparison, wolves killed at least seven calves and one sheep in 2012, and injured six calves and two sheep, Simek said. Most of the attacks were made by the Wedge Pack on cattle owned by a rancher in northeast Washington.

WDFW ultimately killed seven members of the Wedge Pack, which was in the eastern third of Washington where wolves are no longer protected as a federally endangered species.

“That was an extraordinary event that we do not want to repeat,” Martorello said. The survey found two wolves were still traveling as a pack in the same area last year.

The survey noted that five wolves died, due to causes ranging from being struck by a car on Blewett Pass to a legal hunt on the Spokane Indian reservation.

Reducing conflicts

A news release from WDFW outlined several steps the agency has taken in the past year to reduce conflicts with wolves, including cooperative agreements, increased staffing and creation of a Wolf Advisory Group.

WDFW has entered into cost-sharing agreements with 29 livestock producers, who have committed to take proactive steps to avoid conflicts with wolves. These include improved fencing and sanitation, employing range riders and using non-lethal hazing methods to repel wolves

The agency created a new 13-member Wildlife Conflict Section to work with livestock producers, landowners and communities to avoid conflicts with wolves.

In addition, a new nine-member advisory group was established to recommend strategies that encourage livestock owners to enter into cooperative agreements and provide compensation for wolf-related economic losses. Members represent hunters, livestock producers and conservation groups.

Under the state’s wolf management plan, Washington is divided into three recovery regions — Eastern Washington, the North Cascades and the South Cascades/Northwest Coast. Wolves can be removed from the state’s endangered species list when 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years among the three recovery regions, or 18 successful breeding pairs in one year among the three regions.

A successful breeding pair is defined as an adult male and female with at least two pups that survive until the end of the calendar year.

In the 2013 survey, WDFW documented three successful breeding pairs in the Eastern Washington recovery region and two pairs in the North Cascades recovery region, including the Lookout Pack. No wolf packs or breeding pairs have been documented in the South Cascades/Northwest Coast recovery region.

An overview of the 2013 wolf survey is posted on WDFW’s website: wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf.

 

Also in the News this week: Methow will be part of wolf research program