Wolves have changed the playing field in northeastern Washington.
Livestock grazers aren’t the only people who must make adjustments as wolves reintroduce themselves to their former range. Hikers, hunters and other recreationalists will need to make the transition, too.
Especially if they bring their pet dogs along.
Wolves won’t tolerate other canines in their territory. We know this from Alaska and British Columbia, where wolves have harassed people walking their dogs and killed pets in the process.
We know this from Idaho, where hound hunters learned the lesson the hard way early in the wolf reintroduction process.
We know this from Yellowstone, where wolf packs decimated coyote populations that had enjoyed a relatively hassle-free life before canis lupis was reintroduced to the park and the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s.
And Jim Groth of Colville knows the threat wolves pose to dogs from a personal experience he had last week at the south end of the Kettle River Range.
“It changed the way we think about going into the mountains,” he said.
Groth was working for the Forest Service doing fall mushroom surveys southeast of Republic and about 5 miles north of the Colville Indian Reservation boundary.
He was hiking through timber near Hall Ponds with Ollie, his 90-pound golden retriever-Labrador mix.
“He’s very well socialized and gets along great with other dogs,” Groth said.
But wolves are another animal.
“The dog had wandered down below me a ways and I heard some scuffling,” he said. “I saw something black and I figured it was a bear, so I started down through the thick deadfall. It wasn’t a pleasant place.
“Then I thought, ‘I’ve never seen a bear move back and forth that fast.’
“I was yelling, and the dog started coming up toward me. I could see a little blood on his neck. He kept looking back. Then I could see, following very closely, was a big, black wolf.
“The wolf had a little taste of my dog and I think it wanted to finish him off.”
Groth grabbed Ollie by the collar and leashed him as he yelled at the wolf.
“I’m from Minnesota and I’m no stranger to wolves,” he said. “But they’ve always been shy in my experience. This one was not. It just kept coming to within 25 feet of me. Then I noticed another, smaller grayish-colored wolf behind it.”
Groth said he yelled and lunged toward the wolves, trying to look big and tough.
“The big wolf stood his ground woofing for a minute or so before it turned and walked away, but both wolves still hung around as I tried to get out of there,” he said.
Ollie wasn’t interested in being aggressive or protective. Groth noticed the bleeding was only on his neck and wondered if the big, thick collar might have given his dog a break.
After another anxious minute or so the wolves slinked away.
“It was quite unsettling,” Groth said. “It took an hour to get back to the road with the dog on a leash. I was looking over my shoulder a lot.
“Like most people, I’m used to just heading out with my dog in the forests, whether I’m working or recreating. But all of a sudden the old rules don’t apply anymore in this place where I live.”
Back at his vehicle, Groth ran into a bowhunter and told him about his encounter.
“The hunter asked if there was a smaller grayish wolf with the big black wolf,” he said. “When I said yes, the hunter nodded and said he’d run into them last year, so it appears they’ve been in the area for a while.”
Groth doesn’t know if there were more wolves with the two he saw. The Colville Tribe has documented two packs on the reservation and has put GPS collars on three animals to monitor their movements.
To the northwest, state officials are trying to kills some wolves in the Wedge Pack, which has been killing cattle. Five other packs are known to be roaming the tri-county area of northeast Washington
“A few thoughts keep coming back to me,” Groth said.
“First, is how black, big and healthy that wolf was. It was jet black from nose to tail. A beautiful, healthy animal; one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in the woods. But then, my dog came out of it OK. I might not be thinking so fondly of the moment otherwise.
“I’m concerned about their lack of shyness. They were undaunted by me.
“And I want to make sure people know what’s going on. A lot of hikers and campers come out here with their family dogs.”
Grouse hunters will have to think twice about cutting loose a pointing dog that occasionally zips out of sight.
“These wolves aren’t just moving through,” he said.
“I won’t be carrying a gun because they’re heavy and I’m not the kind of guy who would use it.”
But as he struggled out of the woods that day with Ollie – during that hour that seemed more like 10 hours as he looked over his shoulder scanning for movement or any indication the wolves were still there – he made some promises to himself.
“I’m getting a little boat air horn,” he said.
“And I don’t think I’ll be leaving the bear spray in the truck anymore. It’s pretty useless there.”