Gray wolves continued their steady increase in population and range in Washington last year despite the deaths of at least 14 animals, according to a 25-page annual report on the endangered species’ recovery.
The state’s minimum estimated wolf population increased by about 28 percent from 2015 estimates to at least 115 wolves in 20 known packs, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in the report released Friday.
“Wolf counts are expressed as ‘minimum estimates,’ because of the difficulty of accounting for every animal, especially lone wolves without a pack,” the agency said.
The packs going into this year included at least 10 successful breeding pairs, up from five documented in 2015.
The first breeding pack in more than 70 years was confirmed in Washington in 2008 and wolf numbers have increased roughly 30 percent every year since then, officials say.
At least 35 pups survived to the beginning of 2017, the report says. Wolf denning is underway to produce another crop of pups for this year.
Most of the wolves – 15 of the known 20 packs – are in the northeastern quarter of the state, where ranchers, county commissioners and hunters are eager to reach wolf recovery quotas so the predators can be managed more effectively.
Hunting and trapping for wolves is allowed in Idaho and Montana, where wolves have been removed from endangered species protections.
“My comment on wolf recovery is that it has ‘recovered’ to a level that has never existed here in recorded history,” Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell said.
The three northeastern counties have taken the brunt of wolf recovery impacts, while the predators have been slow to recolonize the western portion of the state.
Pack sizes in 2016 ranged from two to 13 and averaged five wolves. Two new packs were documented – Sherman in the northeast area of the state and Touchet in the southeast.
The minimum numbers are derived from monitoring that involved trapping and aerial captures to attach GPS collars on at least one wolf in each of 13 packs. Remote cameras also were used for the monitoring by state, federal and tribal wildlife agencies.
“We’re glad the population continues to expand, and that participation in conflict avoidance is going up as well,” said Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit group that promotes deterrent programs to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock.
“Hopefully, this will be the year that at least one pack is confirmed in the South Cascades.”
Wolves will remain protected until state and federal endangered species protocols are met naturally. No wolf introductions or relocations are permitted in Washington, according to the state’s 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.
Nine cattle were confirmed killed by wolves in 2016, state Fish and Wildlife investigators said. Six were classified as probable wolf-kills. Another six cattle were confirmed to have been injured by wolves, and one injury to a dog was classified as probable.
Other livestock could have been lost to unconfirmed wolf predation, the report says, noting that four of the state’s 20 known packs were involved in at least one confirmed fatal livestock attack last year.
Seven of the 12 wolves in the Profanity Peak Pack were removed by agency staff shooting from helicopters last year after the pack was involved with at least 15 dead or injured cattle. The state reported spending $135,000 over three months on that mission alone.
The report also outlines an array of nonlethal strategies the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department employed last year to reduce conflicts between wolves and domestic animals, including cost-sharing agreements with 55 ranchers who took proactive steps to protect their livestock.
The agency’s total cost for research, monitoring and managing wolves last year was about $2.9 million, said Donny Martorello, the department’s wolf manager.
“We know that some level of conflict is inevitable between wolves and livestock sharing the landscape,” he said. “For that reason, we are encouraged by the growing number of livestock producers using proactive, nonlethal measures to protect their herds and flocks over the past two years.”
The state paid a total of $12,330 to compensate four claims by producers for livestock losses directly caused by wolves. Another $65,648 was paid, as recommended by the Livestock Review Board, for two claims of possible losses to wolves.
GPS monitoring allowed state and federal biologists to document the far-flung travels of at least three wolves that left their packs last year. A Huckleberry Pack wolf left the group and traveled into Canada and nearly 400 miles east into central Montana before it was killed near a sheep operation.
Wolves are still protected throughout Washington by state laws. The exception is on the Colville and Spokane Indian reservations, where wildlife is managed by the tribes and limited wolf hunting is permitted for tribal members.
One wolf was killed by hunters on the Colville Reservation and two wolves on the Spokane Indian Reservation last year.
Since the federal Endangered Species Act protects the gray wolf in the western two-thirds of the state, Washington’s annual wolf population status report is required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Full delisting of wolves under state law is set to begin when at least four successful breeding pairs are documented in each of three recovery areas, including Western Washington, plus an additional three breeding pairs anywhere in the state for three consecutive years.
Another threshold that would trigger delisting would be four successful breeding pairs in each recovery area plus an additional six breeding pairs anywhere in the state for a single year.