The numbers are in for the wolves


(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

POPULATION GROWTH: WDFW reports growth of wolf population in WA for tenth straight year…

With 18 of Washington’s 27 wolf packs, the northeastern corner of the state has been somewhat of an epicenter for the predator’s population recovery.

WDFW recently released a new report about the minimum number of wolves in Washington, saying that the population has increased for the tenth consecutive year. The number has increased from at least a minimum of 122 wolves to 126 in 2018. There are now 27 wolf packs and 15 breeding pairs in Washington.

This is the first year Washington has had 15 breeding pairs of wolves, which moves wolves closer to be delisted as endangered but these pairs are disproportionately located in eastern Washington. To meet the criteria for delisting, at least four breeding pairs in eastern Washington, four pairs in the north Cascades and four in the southern cascades are required.

Wolves in Washington have a confusing designation. Federally, it appears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department is planning on delisting the gray wolf nationally after they had been listed as endangered since 1975. Number growth has been good in the Rocky Mountain region and federally, have not been considered engangered in the eastern third of Washington.

According to the state’s own designations, however, wolves are still considered endangered in Washington, even in that eastern third where most of the wolves reside.

The first breeding pair west of the Cascade Mountains has been confirmed as the newly dubbed Diobsud Creek pack in Skagit County.

The latest numbers heralded some celebration from conservation groups and some questions over the actual numbers of wolves.

“After years of reports of wolves in Western Washington, we are particularly excited by the confirmation of the first wolf pack west of the Cascade Crest in nearly a century, the Diobsud Pack near North Cascades National Park,” said Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest Executive Director. “This is a milestone worth celebrating, and a clear indication of the continued recovery of wolves in our state.”

Friedman and WDFW also said these are minimum numbers and they understand that there are more wolves out there.

“It’s important to keep in mind that these annual wolf reports from the state represent a minimum number,” said Friedman. “Individual wolves are incredibly hard to document as they expand to new areas, and our state’s total wolf population is certainly higher than this baseline count. Given recent research by the University of Washington, we can be confident that in actuality well over 150 wolves reside in Washington today.”

In NE Washington, the wolf population has developed friction and tension. With the majority of wolf packs residing in this corner of the state, residents have experienced the effects more than other parts of the state.

Quoted by the Spokesman-Review, WDFW wolf specialist Ben Maletzke said that overall population growth will slow as well-suited habitat in NE Washington is being filled. He expects growth will jump back up once wolves establish themselves more on the western side of the state.

Cattle depredations, sightings and fears of a wolf attack on humans – even though statistically it’s very, very rare – are common complaints from residents, cattle producers and local leaders.

In a sign of how different the west side and east side of the state see the wolf situation, House Representative Joel Kretz went so far as to propose a bill that would have relocated wolves to Bainbridge Island as a political dig at a westside lawmaker from the island who wanted to outlaw any lethal removal of the animals.

Lethal removals of wolves have been carried out by WDFW to deter cattle depredations, much to the outcry of some conservation groups but it hasn’t stymied the growth of the animal’s population.

Conservation NW, which has praised the state for not having to lethally remove wolves as much as other Rocky Mountain states during the population recovery has also pointed out there needs the be a minimal negative effect on livestock producers and deer populations.

According to the organization’s spokesperson Chase Gunnell, they support the state’s wolf plan and recovery goals but say that the results have been uneven with more wolves in NE Washington.

“That complicates things and creates tension, and we see that and want to find appropriate paths forward,” Gunnell said. “That’s part of why we support Rep. Kretz’s HB 2097 in Olympia right now: to study recovery progress and determine next steps in coordination with those most impacted by wolf recovery.”

Kretz and fellow 7th District Representative Jacqulin Maycumber co-sponsored legislation that passed the state house which requires WDFW to re-look at the wolf population in the state and its endagerment status along with providing more resources for conflict management. Local political tension has come with following the state’s wolf recovery plan. Currently, if a wolf pack attacks a number of livestock in a set period of time, WDFW institutes their lethal removal policy, which now is incremental removal. After killing a wolf from the pack, the agency sees if this adjusts the behavior of the pack and if it doesn’t, they take out another wolf.

The lethal removal process has been stymied in court before, causing delays for WDFW to be able to implement their procedures as well.

Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell feels like this incremental removal creates too much time passed for the wolves to adjust their behavior. It feels it also doesn’t help the rancher or livestock producer as many cattle could be attacked or killed before action is taken.

“I’d like to see more of a strike one and you’re out as opposed to waiting and seeing if they’ll change their behavior,” Dashiell said.

Another hope from commissioners, legislators and local residents is the hope that one day wolves will be delisted, lifting some current protections and allowing for even more local response when it comes to conflicts.

Some state legislation proposed, however, has gone the opposite direction suggesting agencies use more non-lethal measures before lethal removal processes.
It hasn’t been cheap either; WDFW had cooperative agreements with 31 livestock producers across the state, and producers received a total of $257,421 in reimbursements for preventatitve measures. Due to demand, the program exceeded funding available. As part of this, WDFW employed 15 range riders to monitor grazing cattle for a total cost of $241,010.

The state also paid a total of $7,536 in compensation to livestock producers who suffered confirmed losses.

The wolf population in Washington was practically non-existent by the 1930s because of hunting, trapping and poisoning of the animals. Since 2008, though, the population has been recovering because of movement and migration by wolves from Canada, Idaho and Montana.

In 2008, there were less than ten wolves known by WDFW, that grew to close to 20 by 2010.

In 2011, federal protection was lifted on gray wolves in Eastern Washington but state endangered species designations remained. In 2012, that number hit 50.

The number of wolves crossed the 100 threshold in 2016 when over 110 were recorded by the state and that has since increased in two years.

The increase of the wolf population has created tension between ranchers and state agencies as livestock depredations have become a reality on grazing lands.

The first cattle depredation was recorded in 2007 before a measurable population of wolves was in the state. In 2012 there were several cattle and sheep depredations. The year that saw the most confirmed wolf attacks was 2014 when over 25 sheep were killed by wolves.

Five of the 26 known packs were involved in livestock depredations.

In 2018, 19 cattle depredations were confirmed as were two sheep depredations.

These were confirmed kills and not probable kills, a source of frustration for cattle producers who feel depredation numbers are low compared to reality, and so is the count of number of wolves.

With the wolf recovery, the Colville Confederated Tribes established a year-round season for wolves with no annual harvest limits in their traditional tribal lands. In 2018, six wolves were harvested by NE Washington Tribes.
Stevens County has employed Jeff Flood as a special deputy locally, and according to Dashiell he must sleep with one eye open ready to respond to wildlife conflicts. When called, Flood also contacts WDFW and helps serve as a liaison between the county community and the state.
Dashiell said this helps create better responses to attacks and allows for more documentation of numbers. Livestock producers and residents will say there are more attacks than can be confirmed, as confirmed kills and attacks require a certain kind of criteria.

The threat to humans has been on the tip of the tongues of many residents. In 100 years in North America, however, there have been just two fatal wolf attacks on humans whereas dogs kill roughly 20-30 people a year.

“In northeast Washington, I’ve met some of the toughest folks I’ve encountered hunting, hiking, working and traveling anywhere in the West,” Gunnell said. “Yet some of these folks seem to believe wolves are some new super threat that means they must be armed to the teeth anytime they’re in the woods. There’s no data to support that level of threat.”

Despite the statistical vacuums concerning wolf threats to humans, Gunnell and WDFW still tell people to treat a wolf like a wild animal, and take any reasonable precaution concerning large wildlife, especially moose and bears. Gunnell also added wolves can be aggressive towards dogs.

“Their level of threat is next to nothing compared to so many other things in our daily lives. Like driving,” Gunnell said.

Controversial instances include a seasonal U.S. Forest Service employee being treed by gray wolves and having to be rescued by helicopter after she came near a den site, and a cattle producer shooting a wolf after he felt threatened.

Local Stevens County agencies like the Sheriff’s Office have asked people to report predator conflicts to them as well as WDFW. While this is not a change in policy, they’ve always done this, state law does allow them to respond to any threat of life and property.

“There have not been any particular catalyst for our [news release concerning predators], we just trying to educate the public on reporting procedures,” Sheriff Manke said. “RCW provides for the Sheriff’s office to enforce all laws and act as ‘ex officio’ wildlife officers. Since they have an entire agency dedicated to wildlife, we would prefer they be the lead agency for wildlife problems, however it is the duty of the Sheriff’s Office to protect our citizens.”

Along with safety, local groups like NE WA Wildlife Group are currently concerned with the predators’ – cougars along with wolves – effects on local deer and elk populations. They have petitioned local people to show up at WDFW Commissioner meetings to talk about the predator issues and have suggested the state put a four-point minimum requirement for white tails to help that population recover from what they feel are low levels.

Some community members have even suggested that competition for prey between cougars and wolves is creating issues.

According to WDFW biologist AnneMarie Prince they have seen a decrease in deer harvests and said that the current Predator-Prey study by the WDFW should determine if predators are making a difference.

“In general, habitat is much more limiting than predators,” Prince said. “I just think about all of the development that takes place outside of the city limits. Cabins in the woods, houses on 20 acres bordering National Forests.”

Prince added that this human encroachment, including ATV vehicle use can mean less habitat and more disturbance and that plays a role in how many deer are on a landscape as well.

The multi-faceted wolf issue will continue in NE Washington, with both recovery, attacks, legislation and opinions. As admitted by several leaders and groups, there will be no “mission accomplished” on either side of the issue but eventually a hope that some sort of middle ground can be reached.