ENDANGERED SPECIES -- Gray wolves -- possibly a pack-- appear to be checking out territory west of the Cascades in eastern Skagit County, according to photos, tracks and other sign, federal officials say.
If observations prove to be true, a pack in Western Washington would be a leap toward delisting wolves from state and federal endangered species protections.
Currently, wolves are flourishing in northeastern Washington. But packs must be established in two other zones of the state before delisting can be considered.
Photos of wolves taken by a Skagit County resident near Marblemount were published Tuesday by KING-5 TV.
"It's too early to confirm whether a pack is present there, but we have confirmed what we believe to be wolf activity in the area," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Carnivore Lead Gregg Kurz. The federal agency has jurisdiction over gray wolves in the western third of Washington where they continue to be listed as endangered.
Wolves in the eastern two thirds of the state are delisted from federal protections but will remain protected by state endangered species laws until they meet certain wolf recovery plan criteria.
The nearest documented packs are at least 100 miles away -- the Teanaway Wolf Pack near Cle Elum and the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley. Last year, some of the Teanaway wolves moved north, KING-5 reported. This wolf could be related to them – what wildlife experts call a “dispersing animal.”
A similar looking black colored wolf was killed on I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass two years ago.
In October 2014, an adult breeding female wolf belonging to the Teanaway Pack was illegally shot and killed as it roamed in to Western Washington near Salmon la Sac. The unsolved case was considered a setback to wolf expansion and delisting.
Federal and state biologists are monitoring the Skagit County area with staff and remote cameras in an attempt to determine whether the wolves are established in the area or just visiting. If they can capture the wolf, they'll attach a GPS collar and release it to monitor its movements.
Wolves are being allowed to naturally recolonize Washington as they disperse from resident Washington packs along with moving in from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia.