Methow Valley’s two packs are now thriving
The two gray wolf packs in the Methow Valley are thriving — the Lookout pack and Loup Loup pack — both grew to at least five members last year, and both had a successful breeding pair.
That’s a shift from 2017, when there were just three wolves in the Lookout pack and two in the Loup Loup pack. Neither pack had a successful breeding pair.
Statewide, the number of wolves grew for the 10th consecutive year. As of the end of 2018, there were at least 126 wolves in 27 packs. That’s four more individual wolves and five more packs than 2017. Overall, the state added one successful breeding pair last year, bringing the total to 15.
The overview is included in the Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2018 Annual Report prepared by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), along with federal and tribal agencies. Because they count wolves using aerial surveys, tracking of collared animals, and remote cameras, the authors report minimum numbers of wolves and consider their estimates conservative.
A pack is defined as two or more wolves traveling together in winter. A breeding pair consists of at least one adult male and one adult female who raised at least two pups that survived until Dec. 31.
Although the 2018 annual count showed just a modest increase in individual wolves, the proliferation of new packs and breeding pairs suggests there will be more growth this year, according to Donny Martorello, WDFW wolf policy lead. “Packs and breeding pairs are the building blocks of population growth,” he said.
The state is divided into three recovery areas. The Methow Valley is in the North Cascades recovery region, which has five wolf packs overall. It has three breeding pairs, including the two new ones in the Lookout and Loup Loup packs.
The North Cascades region is one breeding pair short of the state’s recovery goals. Still, even if it adds a fourth breeding pair, the pairs would have to breed for three more consecutive years to meet the state’s recovery objectives, according to the report.
The rest of Okanogan County (east of state Highway 93) is in the Eastern recovery region, which has 22 packs. The Eastern region actually lost a breeding pair in 2018, dropping to 12 from 13. Still, because there have been four successful breeding pairs there for three consecutive years, the Eastern region exceeds the state’s minimum recovery goals.
Okanogan County gained one new wolf pack, the Nason pack on the Colville reservation, adding to four existing packs on the reservation.
Other new packs discovered in 2018 are near Ellensburg and in the Blue Mountains in southeast Washington. The Sherman Pack re-established in northeast Washington. A wolf collared in Skagit County in 2017 was traveling with another individual in late 2018, forming the Diobsud Creek pack, the first confirmed pack west of the Cascade crest.
Individual wolves have been seen in the South Cascades and Coastal recovery region, but there are no packs or breeding pairs there, according to the report. One collared wolf left Washington and was tracked in Oregon and Idaho.
Wolf packs used an average territory of 310 square miles.
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation allow tribal members to hunt and trap wolves on tribal lands. In the 2017-18 season, tribal members were permitted to hunt or trap up to three wolves per year and one per day.
Last year the Colvilles revised those limits, allowing unlimited harvest starting in September. Three wolves were legally harvested, according to the report. In February 2019, the Colville Tribes established a year-round season with no annual limits.
The Spokane Indian Reservation also allows year-round hunting, with a maximum of 10 wolves during a calendar year. Trapping is allowed by special permit only. Three wolves were legally harvested on the Spokane reservation last year, according to the report.
There were 12 known wolf mortalities in Washington in 2018 — four wolves killed by WDFW staff to address livestock depredations, and six legally harvested by tribal hunters. Two human-caused wolf mortalities are still under investigation, according to the report.
WDFW has an agreement with ranchers to minimize and address wolf-livestock conflicts and depredation. In 2018, investigators confirmed that wolves from five packs (plus one individual) were responsible for the death of 11 cattle and one sheep, as well as injuries to 19 cattle and two sheep.
Preventive measures include fencing, radio-activated guard boxes, lights, guard dogs and range riders. WDFW also provides livestock producers with location data so they can identify areas with high wolf activity.
The 11 cattle mortalities last year were the highest recorded in the past six years, although 28 sheep were killed in 2014.
Last year, 31 ranchers participated in WDFW’s prevention program; reimbursements came to $257,000. Demand for the cooperative-reimbursement program exceeds the available funding, according to the report.
The most common interventions were fencing and range riders, who monitor livestock on open-range grazing allotments to minimize encounters with wolves. WDFW employed 15 range riders for $241,000.
WDFW also compensates ranchers for documented losses or injuries to livestock. Last year, they paid $7,536 for five claims.
Overall, WDFW spent $1.2 million on wolf-management activities.
History of recovery
In 2008, the Methow’s Lookout pack was the first resident pack discovered since wolves were nearly eliminated from Washington in the 1930s.
Since 1980, gray wolves have been listed under state law as endangered throughout Washington. In the western two-thirds of the state, including the Methow Valley, they are also classified as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Last month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed a rule that would remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered wildlife across the country. USFWS based the recommendation on scientific and commercial information they say indicates that gray wolves no longer meet the definition of an endangered species.
Washington has its own criteria for changing endangered status of wolves, depending on the number of successful breeding pairs for a number of consecutive years. It also sets a threshold for breeding pairs in each of the three recovery regions.
The annual report also describes academic research projects involving wolves and other wildlife. Research topics include predator-prey dynamics and stress on cattle health caused by wolves. Other studies examine the effects of wolf populations on deer, elk, cougars, bears, coyotes and bobcats.