Packs in Methow Valley area all grew
The gray wolf population in Washington topped 200 animals last year, with 33 packs in the central and eastern parts of the state at the end of 2021.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently released its yearly wolf population report, which tallied 206 wolves, a 16% increase over the 2020 count of 178 wolves. Of the 33 packs documented in 2021, 19 had successful breeding pairs. In 2020, WDFW counted 29 packs with 16 breeding pairs.
Three packs with breeding pairs (Lookout, Loup Loup and Sullivan Creek packs) occupy territories in and around the Methow Valley, and each increased in size last year. A breeding pair is a measurement of a pack’s reproductive success, and is defined as at least one adult male and one adult female wolf that raised at least two pups that survived until Dec. 31.
The Lookout pack, the oldest documented pack in Washington, had grown to 10 wolves at the end last year, two more than in 2020. That makes it one of the largest packs in the state; two other packs also had 10 members and no packs were larger than 10. First documented in 2008, the Lookout pack occupies territory in mountains southwest of Twisp.
The Loup Loup pack had seven wolves in 2021 compared to six the previous year, and the Sullivan Creek pack had six wolves last year, compared to five in 2020. Both packs occupy territories around Loup Loup summit.
The state is divided into three regions under WDFW’s wolf recovery plan. The Methow Valley is in the Northern Cascades recovery region, which has six packs, including the three that occupy territories around the valley.
WDFW reported a new wolf pack was found last year in the Northern Cascades region. The Shady Pass pack, with four wolves, was confirmed in Chelan County south of Lake Chelan. That pack did not have a breeding pair.
Two other packs live in the Northern Cascades region — the Navarre pack, located in southwest Okanogan County, south of territory occupied by the Lookout pack. The Navarre pack, first documented in 2020 with two wolves, had five wolves at the end of 2021, including a breeding pair, WDFW reported.
The Teanaway pack, with territory in the mountains southwest of Wenatchee, had four wolves last year, down from five in 2020, and did not have a breeding pair. Another pack in that area, the Naneum pack, was not included in the pack tally, because the two collared wolves that made up the pack dispersed from the area in November.
One wolf crossed the Columbia Basin toward the northeast and joined the Stranger pack. The other crossed Interstate 90 headed south, and is current moving around in the recovery region designated as Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast — the only wolf in that region, according to WDFW’s report.
Statewide, four new packs were documented in four different counties, WDFW reported. “Washington’s wolves continue to progress toward recovery,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director.
WDFW documented 30 wolf mortalities during 2021. Four wolves were killed by vehicles, and two wolf deaths are under investigation. Tribal hunters killed 22 wolves on tribal lands, where wolf hunting is allowed under tribal regulations. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation reported killing 14 wolves and the Spokane Tribe of Indians reported killing eight wolves.
Two wolves in the Columbia pack in eastern Washington were killed in response to attacks on livestock. One was killed by WDFW and the other was killed by a landowner who had a permit to remove a wolf.
Last year was the lowest number of livestock depredation incidents since 2017, and the state removed the fewest wolves in response to conflict since 2015, according to Julia Smith, WDFW wolf policy lead.
“We’re committed to promoting the proactive use of non-lethal deterrents to minimize wolf-livestock conflict, and proud to demonstrate that our approach is working thanks to the dedication of livestock producers, non-government organization assisting directly with livestock monitoring, and WDFW staff,” Smith said.
WDFW confirmed five cattle were killed by wolves during 2021and another eight were injured by wolves. Additionally, two calf deaths and six calf injuries were considered probable depredations by wolves. Six wolf packs (18 percent of known packs) were involved in at least one confirmed livestock depredation.
WDFW is currently considering a change in its management policies regarding lethal removal of wolves involved in depredations on livestock. The rule change was proposed after Gov. Jay Inslee directed the agency in 2020 to develop practices that would reduce the number of wolves lethally removed as a result of depredations of domestic animals, and reduce the number of livestock killed or injured by wolves.
The proposed rule change would require that the WDFW director, before authorizing lethal removal of wolves, confirm that livestock owners have implemented appropriate measures to deter conflicts with wolves. It would also direct WDFW staff to work with livestock producers and federal, state and tribal agencies to develop area-specific plans to mitigate wolf-livestock conflict in areas of chronic conflict. A public comment period on the proposed changes ended April 11.
During 2021, WDFW spent $1,421,393 on wolf management and research activities. That included $205,969 for 23 contracted range riders; $20,866 for four claims for livestock losses caused by wolves; $19,957 for lethal removal operations in response to depredations on livestock; and $111,649 in reimbursement to 30 livestock producers for conflict prevention expenses such as fencing, specialized lighting and range riders.
The annual wolf count is conducted as part of Washington’s gray wolf management plan to help wildlife officials gauge recovery of the species, which was nearly driven to extinction by the early 1900s. WDFW collaborates with federal agencies and tribes to estimate the state’s wolf population. WDFW uses a variety of techniques, including observational counts from the ground or air, track surveys, and remote cameras. The numbers reported are considered to be minimum count, and the actual population is likely higher, WDFW said.
In 2019 and 2020, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CTCR) relied on hunter, trapper, biologist and public wolf sightings sightings to count wolves on tribal land. “As a result, we presented WDFW and CTCR numbers separately in the (annual wolf population) report, but added them together to get a total for the year,” said Staci Lehman, a WDFW spokesperson. For the 2021 survey, the tribe once again used the same methods as WDFW, and the numbers from the two counts were meshed for the wolf population total in the report, Lehman said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation organization, said the discrepancy in wolf counting methods creates uncertainty about the growth of the state’s wolf population. Sophia Ressler of the Center for Biological Diversity said that “because no formal count of those wolves (on the Colville tribal lands in 2019 and 2020) was conducted … the growth of the wolf population in 2021 cannot be determined through comparison to the reported wolf population from the two previous years.”
State, federal and tribal biologists captured 17 wolves from 12 different packs and monitored a total of 29 radio-collared wolves from 20 different packs in 2021. Data from the collared wolves helped WDFW define pack territories. Most packs contained three to six wolves.
Since 1980, gray wolves throughout Washington have been protected as an endangered species throughout Washington. The status of gray wolves under federal law has changed several times. In 2011, federal lawmakers passed legislation that removed wolves in the eastern third of Washington and Oregon from federal protection. Wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington (including the Methow Valley) remained listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
In January 2021, under a Trump administration rule, wolves in Washington and other parts of the country were removed from federal endangered species listing. That changed again in February 2022, when a federal court ordered wolves relisted as endangered or threatened under federal law across the continental United States, with the exception of a population of wolves called the Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment — which includes wolves in the eastern third of Washington.
As a result, wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington are under federal jurisdiction, and wolves in the eastern third are under state jurisdiction.
The Eastern Washington recovery zone in Washington’s gray wolf management plan (which includes Colville tribal lands) exceeded the state’s minimum recovery goals — as it did in the last wolf survey — with at least four successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years, WDFW reported. That recovery region has the highest wolf population by far, with 27 documented packs and 15 breeding pairs in 2021.
The Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region has not had a documented resident pack since WDFW began surveying wolves in 2008. WDFW is currently monitoring the collared wolf that dispersed to the area last year from the Naneum pack.
Under the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, wolves can be removed from the state’s endangered species list when at least four successful breeding pairs are present in each recovery region and there are three additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for three consecutive years; or when there are at least four successful breeding pairs in each recovery region and six additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for a single year.
Since WDFW began keeping records in 2008, the state’s wolf population has grown by an average of 23% per year, the agency said. The annual report can be found on WDFW’s website at: wdfw.wa.gov/publications.