Gray wolves, once completely wiped out in the state, are back and their numbers are growing.
Conservationists applaud the development, saying it will help restore balance to the ecosystem and preserve a native species that hunting and trapping nearly eliminated in the contiguous 48 states.
Others, particularly hunters and farmers, aren’t so happy about the wolves’ resurgence. State wildlife officials recently killed one wolf in Eastern Washington for attacks on livestock and plan to kill four more.
Hunters blame the wolves for drops in the elk population in Idaho and say the same could happen here.
“They’re a predatory animal and they follow the meat, and when it runs out they’re going to keep following,” said Curt Low of Arlington, an Everett fire captain who hunts deer and elk near Ellensburg.
“It’ll happen everywhere unless they make a change.”
Wolves were spotted in Washington in 2005 — the first documented sightings in the state since the 1930s.
Wolf populations are healthy in Canada, according to the International Wolf Center, an education group based in Minnesota. The animals have rebounded strongly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In recent years, some of these wolves have migrated from the north, east and southeast to Eastern Washington and the Cascades, state wildlife officials said. No wolves have been imported or reintroduced into the state, they said.
It’s possible wolves could migrate to Snohomish County, though state officials say it’s difficult to predict when, or even if, this will occur.
“We are at early stages of wolf recovery,” said David Ware, game division manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Therefore dispersal and establishing new packs is at a slow pace.”
One of two confirmed packs in the Cascade Mountains is located perhaps 50 miles from Gold Bar: wolves from the Teanaway pack roam between Cle Elum and Wenatchee. At the end of 2011, there were three adults and four pups in this pack, according to the state.
The other Cascades pack, the Lookout pack, is centered in the Methow Valley area of Okanogan County. This was the first in the state to be confirmed as a pack, in 2008. Since then, the number of packs has grown quickly with most located in the northeastern corner of the state. There are now eight confirmed packs and four other areas in which packs are believed to live, containing a total of 25 to 30 wolves, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Poaching reduced the Lookout Pack from 10 wolves in 2008 to two or possibly three animals, wildlife officials have said. Three members of a Twisp family pleaded guilty in April to charges related to killing endangered wolves and attempting to smuggle a wolf hide to Canada. They face fines of more than $70,000.
A few solitary wolves have been seen in other parts of the state, though none have been reported in the Cascades outside the two packs, said Nate Pamplin, assistant wildlife director for the department.
A pack is defined as containing at least one breeding pair raising two or more pups through the end of a calendar year.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association in Ellensburg, says the Teanaway pack could easily move west.
“The wolves from the Teanaway pack in King County could be in Snohomish County (in two days) without any problem,” he said.
Field said he hasn’t heard any specific concerns from Snohomish County farmers about wolves, but he said if livestock are preyed upon while the wolves are still listed as endangered, not much can be done because the wolves can’t legally be killed.
Field believes lethal measures are the only ones that work, especially in remote, rugged areas where fencing, lighting and penning aren’t always practical.
“It’s a rugged forest grazing environment,” he said.
In Washington, wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state. In Eastern Washington, where numbers have grown in recent years, wolves have been removed from the list. They are now managed under a conservation plan by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department created a management plan last year that aims for continued recovery of the species while providing for ways to prevent or address problems caused by wolves preying on livestock or wildlife.
“Wolves are a part of Washington’s wildlife heritage,” according to a statement on the department’s website. The Legislature requires the department “to preserve, protect and perpetuate all of the native wildlife of the state.”
Wolves help keep elk, deer and moose populations under control, state officials say. Wolves prey on smaller animals, such as rabbits, as well.
“As with other predators, such as cougars, bears, and coyotes, wolf-prey balances are maintained over time, with highs and lows in populations of both,” according to the statement.
For gray wolves to be removed from the endangered species list, the state has set a goal of 15 confirmed breeding pairs, or packs, to be established for at least three years and distributed evenly throughout the state.
Non-lethal measures should be used first to deter wolves from killing livestock, according to the plan. These include fencing, keeping animals penned in at night, patrols and tracking wolves with radio collars.
The plan for wolves in Eastern Washington does allow for killing of wolves, however, if they’re found to be preying on livestock and other measures have failed.
The state has done just that in northeastern Washington. Officials shot a wolf Aug. 7 after one calf at the Diamond M ranch in northern Stevens County was killed and several other cattle injured in attacks in July. Wildlife officials now say they plan to kill four more wolves after two more livestock deaths were reported this week at the same ranch. Those deaths are now being investigated.
Wildlife officials determined the July attacks were made by wolves from a pack nearby. Ranchers in the area had reported possible attacks on their livestock beginning in 2007.
The goal was to reduce the size of the pack and break the pattern of wolves preying on livestock.
“We can’t guarantee that (the) action will prevent future attacks by this pack, but we have clear indications that non-lethal actions alone are unlikely to reduce predation on livestock,” Pamplin said.
Conservationists don’t believe the kill was warranted. They say there was insufficient evidence to show the attacks were by wolves. Representatives of seven different conservation groups signed a letter sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire protesting the kill.
“This is a simple case of the state not following its own rules,” says Bob Ferris, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, based in Eugene, Ore.
Wolves can have an effect on wildlife as well.
Larry Taylor of Arlington, who has been hunting in Idaho for more than 20 years, said he and other hunters are convinced the increase in wolves is responsible for sharp drops in the number of elk in some areas.
In 1995 and 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 35 wolves into central Idaho. After this, Taylor, 74, said he noticed a decline in the elk population. There are now more than 800 wolves in Idaho.
The wolves “have pretty much killed the elk, they’re working on the deer and the moose,” he said. He used to see up to four moose per year on his hunting trips, and now “I haven’t seen a moose in three years.”
In Idaho, a hunter may apply for a permit to kill up to five wolves per year. Idaho has set a goal of 500 wolves for the state, the level from 2005 — the same year that saw a sharp rise in the number of wolf attacks on elk herds and domestic livestock, according to a 2010 report by the Idaho Fish and Game Department.
Still, other factors have affected elk populations as well, such as hunting, drought and harsh winters, according to the report.
In some parts of the state, elk are thriving. Overall, the elk population has dropped from 125,000 when wolves were introduced in the mid-’90s to 100,000 today, the report states.
Hunters such as Taylor and Low believe wolves will multiply in Washington as they did in Idaho.
“There’s no way you can get rid of them now,” Low said.
If wolf populations increase enough to be removed from protected status, and if they’re causing problems for livestock or wildlife, then the state could establish a wolf hunting season and limits as is done in Idaho. If wolves multiply to this point, then the state plan calls for them to be managed as a game species, Ware said.
Conservationists say the whole ecosystem needs to be taken into account with regard to wolves.
Predators such as wolves weed out sick and weak animals, strengthening the stock for deer and elk, conservationists say.
“Having wolves will make a positive difference for everything, from healthier game populations to a better salmon habitat,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest in Bellingham.
If elk have too few predators, they tend to stay near streams and eat down the vegetation, damaging the habitat for salmon, according to Friedman. This has happened along some rivers on the Olympic Peninsula, he said.
There’s no evidence to suggest that wolves alone will decimate deer and elk populations, said Ferris of Cascadia Wildlands.
“They never have (done so) in their history of their coexistence, so why would we expect to see that happen now?” he said. To blame wildlife population declines solely on the wolf “is not a robust way of looking at it.”
“Wolves belong here,” Friedman said. “Top level predators like wolves play an essential role in how nature functions.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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• Wolves live, travel and hunt in packs of about four to seven animals. Packs include the mother and father wolves, called the alphas, their pups, and several other subordinate or young animals. The alpha female and male are the pack leaders that track and hunt prey, choose den sites and establish the pack’s territory.
• Coyotes are often mistaken for gray wolves. Wolves are much larger, weighing up to 120 pounds compared to 50 pounds for coyotes, and have gray-black fur while coyotes are brown-gray. Wolf sightings are rare.
• Wolves very rarely attack people, but will attack domestic dogs, which they see as rivals. The state provides tips for keeping dogs safe in wolf country.
Sources: Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife; Defenders of Wildlife.