WENATCHEE — Washington’s gray wolf population increased for the ninth consecutive year, according to an annual statewide survey, but the increases continue to be primarily in the wolf-rich northeastern quarter of the state.
At the end of 2017, the state held at least 122 wolves, 22 packs and 14 successful breeding pairs, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a report released Friday. That compares with a minimum of 115 wolves, 20 packs and 10 breeding pairs reported at the end of 2016.
The state documented 14 wolves killed in 2017 by official actions, poaching, vehicle collisions or other causes, officials reported. Three of those wolves were killed by Colville Tribe members in a limited hunting season allowed on the reservation. Wolves are protected elsewhere in the state.
A $20,000 reward was posted by pro-wolf groups regarding two suspected wolf poaching cases in northeastern Washington in 2017, but the incidents remain unsolved.
The surveys are conducted during winters by state, federal and tribal wildlife managers. The numbers include surveys on the Colville Indian reservation.
The totals are the highest recorded since the state documented an established wolf pack in the state and annual surveys were begun in 2008, said Ben Maletzke, WDFW statewide wolf specialist.
The surveys represent minimum counts of wolves in Washington, Maletzke emphasized. It’s difficult to account for every animal, especially lone wolves without a pack, he said, noting that survey data comes from aerial surveys, remote cameras, wolf tracks and signals from radio-collared wolves.
WDFW spent $1.27 million in 2017 on wolf monitoring and efforts, such as range riders, to prevent wolf attacks on livestock.
“The real value of these surveys is the information they provide about long-term trends, which show that our state’s wolf population has grown by an annual average of 31 percent over the past decade,” he said.
“We’re glad to see that Washington’s wolf population continues to grow, and are particularly excited to see a notable increase in the number of successful breeding pairs compared to past years,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit group based in Bellingham.
“It’s important to note that social tolerance for wolves continues to grow as well, evidenced in part by growing uptake of deterrence measures by livestock operators and reduced acrimony in the state legislature.”
Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashielle said he was hoping to see a reduction in the number of wolves or at least a spreading of the distribution of wolves that would allow for delisting wolves from state and federal endangered species protections.
“We continue to have most of the wolves and wolf problems,” he said. The commission has suggested translocation of wolves from Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties to other portions of the state to accelerate wolves to recovered status. “That’s legal under the state wolf management plan,” he said.
According to the 2017 survey, 15 of the 22 known packs range in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties in the northeast corner of the state.
Friedman said his group also is disappointed that more wolf packs have not yet become established in Washington’s North and South Cascades, despite quality habitat available in those areas. He hopes that wolves will continue to expand into the South Cascades and Western Washington in 2018.
“The recent confirmation of at least one wolf in Western Washington is exciting news, and unconfirmed reports continue to come in from areas south of Interstate 90,” he said.
The Colville Tribe, in a one-day aerial survey on their reservation, documented four packs of six-eight animals each, including a new pack they named the Frosty Meadow Pack. All of the reservation packs are breeding, the Tribe said in a release. A suspected pack has been named the Disautel Pack.
Maletzke said the other new documented packs include the Leadpoint, and Togo packs in northeastern Washington and Grouse Flats Pack in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington.
Two previously identified packs – the Skookum and Sherman packs – were not included in the report’s pack totals because no more than one animal could be located.
Wildlife managers have also been tracking the movements of a wolf in the North Cascades in Skagit County that was captured and fitted with a radio-collar in June, but so far no other wolves have been confirmed in the area, Maletzke said.
The state has 13 GPS tracking collars and three VHF collars on wolves in 11 different packs in the state, officials said.
Since 1980, gray wolves have been listed under state law as endangered throughout Washington. In the western two-thirds of the state, they are also listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
As the state’s wolf population has continued to grow, WDFW has expanded its efforts to collaborate with livestock producers, conservation groups, and local residents to prevent conflict between wolves and domestic animals, Maletzke said.
WDFW employed an array of non-lethal strategies last year to reduce conflicts, including cost-sharing agreements with 37 ranchers who took proactive steps to protect their livestock. State assistance included range riders to check on livestock, guard dogs, lighting, flagging for fences, and data on certain packs’ movements.
The methods aren’t foolproof. Two wolves in the Smackout Pack were lethally removed by the state following attacks on livestock that were being watched by range riders. One wolf from the Sherman Pack was killed following repeated cattle attacks.
Maletzke said five of the 22 known packs that existed in Washington at some point during 2017 were involved in at least one livestock mortality. After conducting investigations, WDFW confirmed that wolves killed at least eight cattle and injured five others last year. WDFW processed two claims totaling $3,700 to compensate livestock producers for their losses in 2017.
“We know that some level of conflict is inevitable between wolves and livestock sharing the landscape,” Maletzke said. “Our goal is to minimize that conflict as the gray wolf population continues to recover.”
State management of wolves is guided by the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan of 2011, along with a protocol approved by WDFW to reduce those conflicts.