Annual survey finds four new packs
By Ann McCreary
Washington’s gray wolf population now numbers 68 wolves, an increase of 16 wolves during the past year, according to an annual survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The survey also identified four new packs, bringing the total to 16 wolf packs, all found east of the North Cascades mountains.
The number of successful breeding pairs of wolves remained at five, the same as last year and the year before. The Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack, which was among the successful breeding pairs for the past two years, did not qualify this year.
A successful breeding pair is defined as a male and female wolf raising at least two pups that survive through December.
The Lookout Pack is believed to have four members — two adults, one pup and one juvenile wolf between 1 and 2 years old, said David Ware, wolf policy lead for WDFW. Because there is only one known surviving pup, the Lookout wolves are not considered a successful breeding pair.
Last spring “we suspected multiple pups, but didn’t know what the number was,” Ware said. The remains of one pup were found last summer in an area burned over during the Carlton Complex Fire in July. It’s unknown what happened to other pups, if there were any.
“Certainly the fire was a major disruption to the pack,” Ware said. The Lookout Pack inhabits territory in the mountains to the southwest of Twisp.
WDFW conducted the annual wolf count through Dec. 31, 2014, using a combination of aerial surveys, remote cameras, wolf tracks and signals from seven wolves fitted with radio collars.
The number of wolves reported in the survey “is the minimum number,” Ware said. “That’s the number we can actually count. Obviously there’s a lot more than that.” Some wolves disperse from their packs and travel alone for periods of time, and are difficult to find, he said.
The number of wolves represents a 30 percent increase over 2013. That increase indicates that Washington’s wolf population is growing under the state recovery plan, said Donny Martorello, WDFW carnivore specialist.
“While we can’t count every wolf in the state, the formation of four new packs is clear evidence that wolves are recovering in Washington. Since 2011, the number of confirmed wolf packs has more than tripled in our state,” Martorello said.
Martorello said the scarcity of snow made it more difficult to track wolves late last year, complicating the survey. As a result, the survey probably underestimates the numbers of wolves, packs and breeding pairs, he said.
“Given the continued growth of the wolf population, there’s a good chance that we have breeding pairs east of the Cascade Range we haven’t found yet,” Martorello said.
The four new packs are Goodman Meadows, Profanity Peak, Tucannon and Whitestone. A pack is defined as two or more wolves traveling together in winter.
The successful breeding pairs identified in the survey were in the Carpenter, Huckleberry, Teanaway, Goodman Meadows and Profanity Peak packs.
One pack — Ruby Creek — was lost last year. One of its two members was struck and killed by a vehicle and the other was accepted for care by Wolf Haven International in Tenino after it was found living among domestic dogs in a small town in Pend Oreille County, according to WDFW.
At least nine other wolves also died in 2014, WDFW reported. Three were killed by poachers, three died of natural causes, and two died of unknown causes.
The breeding female member of the Huckleberry Pack was killed last summer when it was shot by a federal Wildlife Services employee working for WDFW. The shooting was part of an effort to stop members of the pack from preying on a rancher’s sheep in Stevens County.
Wildlife officials won’t know until later this year whether the Huckleberry Pack will continue to have a successful breeding pair this year, Ware said. “What we thought was the breeding female was killed. Perhaps another female has stepped up” as the breeding female, he said.
“It’s great news that wolves have continued to recover in Washington, but they still have a long way to go,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Strong state and federal protections are still needed to ensure these beautiful, ecologically important animals can fully recover in Washington,” Weiss said.
The 2008 discovery of the Lookout Pack, the first gray wolf pack confirmed in Washington since the 1930s, launched the creation of the state’s wolf management plan. The plan calls for recovery of gray wolves throughout the state before they can be removed from state protection as an endangered species.
Wolves are protected under Washington law throughout the state. They were removed from federal protection in the eastern third of the state in 2007, but remain protected under federal law in the western two-thirds of the state, including the Methow Valley.
Managing the conflicts
Attacks on sheep by the Huckleberry Pack pushed the number of livestock killed by wolves to a new record last year, WDFW said. The pack accounted for 33 of 35 sheep killed or injured by wolves and documented by WDFW last year. The department also documented four cows and a dog attacked by wolves from other packs in 2014.
Ware said wildlife officials will try to trap and collar a member of the Lookout Pack later this year, after denning season. The Lookout Pack is one of the high priorities for collaring, in part because it is one of the packs being studied as part of an ongoing Washington State University research project examining livestock and wolf interactions.
“Also in areas where we know there’s a lot of livestock we want to have collars on to try to reduce conflict,” Ware said.
Jim Unsworth, WDFW’s new director, said wolf recovery in Washington is progressing much as it did in Idaho, where he spent much of his career in wildlife management before coming to Washington in February.
“I’ve been involved in wolf management for more than a decade, and the issues are much the same from state to state,” Unsworth said.
“Conflicts with livestock are bound to rise as the state’s wolf population increases, and we have do everything we can to manage that situation. So far, wolf predation on livestock has been well below levels experienced in most other states with wolves,” Unsworth said.
Stephanie Simek, WDFW wildlife conflict manager, said WDFW is working to expand partnerships with rangers to avoid conflicts with wolves, and has stationed wildlife conflict specialists in communities to work with individual ranchers.
WDFW is also expanding its range rider program for ranchers and is continuing to offer cost-sharing agreements for ranchers who want help funding preventive measures to protect their animals, Simek said.
Under the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, wolves can be removed from the state’s endangered species list after 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years among three designated wolf recovery regions in the state.
The annual survey will be posted on the WDFW website after April 1 at wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf.