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Wolf on Mount Spokane? So what else is new?

Gray wolf tracks. (Rich Landers)
Gray wolf tracks. (Rich Landers)

Updated 11:30 a.m. with comment from wolf conflict biologist.

Updated Aug. 11 with link to Inlander's revised story.

WILDLIFE -- No one should be surprised that a trail-cam photograph has been circulating of what appears to be a gray wolf on Mount Spokane.

Anyone who's looked at the GPS tracking studies in this region knows that individual wolves may wander hundreds and even thousands of miles. They can be almost anywhere in this region, at least momentarily.

I was offered a chance to publish the image from Mount Spokane last month but the photographer and local wolf advocate Hank Seipp told me I had to agree to write a "positive" story about wolves. 

Although I appreciated the contact from Seipp, I had to decline the offer because I don't take ultimatums. And even if I did, I wouldn't know the definition of writing a positive story about wolves.  Positive to whom?

If I wrote a straight, objective news story about a wolf on Mount Spokane, some people would cheer that as positive news while others would consider the same words to be a negative situation.

The region's local news weekly tabloid took the bait, though, and ran an online story that claimed "A wolf was spotted on Mt. Spokane for the first time in decades." (I see the online post has been removed).

KXLY TV took the bait, too, and made the same claim on Monday.

Not so fast. 

"We know of at least one other, the radio-collared wolf from a few years ago, and we suspect other lone wolves have traveled through, too," said Madonna Luers, Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

Also:

"Technically, no one 'confirmed' wolves on Mount Spokane," she said. "Our wolf biologist Scott Becker told (Seipp) that his photo was likely of a wolf, but we don’t 'confirm based on one photo of one wolf.

"Becker encouraged Hank to keep retrieving photos and when he gets one, two or more wolves, we’ll look into it more."

The agency protocol for confirming wolf sightings facilitates order in the volatile world of managing a controversial threatened species.

Furthermore, I know a cross-country skier who said she saw a wolf cross a Mount Spokane State Park groomed nordic trail last winter. I went out and found the tracks and they did indeed appear to be made by a wolf. 

That was enough evidence for me to recognize that wolves likely are footloose through the park.

But that evidence doesn't fit into the confirmation category the state agency needs to fit management guidelines.

Nevertheless, the wolf photographed this summer still wouldn't be the first wolf wandering on Mount Spokane in 70 years. 

The Pacific Northwest Inlander's initial report on Seipp's photo also said wolves have been “reintroduced” to Washington. 

The KXLY report made the change to that information and pointed out that all of the wolves in Washington are naturally occurring.  The wolves recolonizing this state are the result of natural movements of wolves dispersing for more than a decade from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Canada.

The wolves are showing great adaptability, expanding on their population from a few scattered sightings around 12 years ago to 19 confirmed packs this summer.

One more mistake that appeared in the Inlander post: Wolves are not protected by federal Endangered Species protections in the eastern third of Washington.  Wolves in this portion of the state as well as in Idaho and Montana, have been federally declassified.

Washington wolves are federally protected in only in the western two-thirds of the state.

However, wolves are protected by Washington’s endangered species rules throughout the state and managed by a citizen-drafted wolf management plan that establishes guidelines for their recovery and eventual declassification.

At that threshold, they would be open to more management options, as they are in Idaho, including the possibility of limited hunting.

The distribution of wolves and their propensity to impact livestock operations and big-game herds are topics that seem to drum up the most controversy, on one side of the debate or the other.

Last week, Washington wildlife officials announced they were planning to eliminate a portion of the Profanity Peak Pack following five confirmed cattle kills in Ferry County. This mission predictably ignited opposite ends of the spectrum including those who believe no wolves should be killed and those who want all wolves eliminated.

Incidentally, the Associated Press report quoted only a group that advocates that no wolves should be killed by humans. The report did not quote the zealots on the other end of the issue.

One member of the state's Wolf Advisory Group responded to an email about the situation with a dig at the rancher. "I then, wonder why he would choose to release cattle -- no matter the timing -- in known wolf territory...."

The rancher might respond, “Virtually all of Eastern Washington is 'known wolf territory.'"

If people were to apply the standard that a rancher should not be allowed to graze livestock where wolves roam, that wouldn't leave much room for cattle on public or private land.

Jay Shepherd, the state's wolf conflict biologist based in Colville qualified that statement:

I hear this from folks all the time and this may be true to some extent, especially if you include dispersers and packs just starting to form, but it is an oversimplification. There are rendezvous sites and den sites that are much higher risk to graze near than other areas in NE Washington. I think there needs to be a collaborative effort with the land managers (esp. the USFS), livestock producers, and wolf managers work to reduce this risk level on a case by case basis at a smaller scale than NE Washington.

Indeed, there's room for improvement in public and private relationships with recovering wolf populations.

On the other hand, many of Washington's livestock depredations from the U.S.-Canada border south into Whitman County have been on private land as well as public land.

Wolves weren't reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1995 as a campaign against western free-range livestock industries. Wolf recovery in the Northwest means people are going to have to make sacrifices and compromises.

That means everybody, including people who don't want any wolves killed.

Maintaining balance and acceptance will require some wolves to be eliminated occasionally. To deny that and expect family businesses to come to heel and totally buckle to wolf predation is a disservice to the wolf as a species.

Those of us who think wolves are cool know that their existence must be tolerable.

And while a wolf sighting on Mount Spokane is interesting, keep it in perspective. 

In the past two years, farmers have taken photos of wolves along U.S. 195 near Rosalia. Unconfirmed sightings in Spokane Valley have been reported. Wolves have killed sheep on ranch land near Lamont.

Wolves are recovering quickly and they can be almost anywhere at one time or another... just like the mountain lions and coyotes that are almost constantly among us even if they're unseen.

That's a positive and negative report on wolves, depending on how you look at it.




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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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