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Washington’s wolf population grew at least 24% in 2020, majority of wolves still concentrated in northeast

UPDATED: Sat., April 24, 2021

There are a minimum of 178 wolves in Washington, according to new information from state and tribal biologists published Friday.

Washington’s wolf population grew at least 24% between 2019 and 2020, despite the death of 16 wolves to legal hunting, lethal removal in response to conflict and natural mortality. There were 29 packs and 16 successful breeding pairs statewide.

The information was presented at Friday’s commission meeting.“It’s exciting for wolf recovery that the numbers continue to grow,” said Julia Smith, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s statewide wolf coordinator. “You never know where it’s going to be. Populations go up. They go down. That’s normal, so it wouldn’t have been alarming to see a small population dip.”

The vast majority – a minimum of 144 – of those wolves still live in Northeast Washington. Per the state’s recovery plan, wolves can only be delisted after 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years, or after officials document 18 breeding pairs in one year.

Under either scenario, the pairs have to be distributed evenly throughout the state’s three wolf management areas. The agency once predicted wolves would disperse throughout all three recovery zones by 2021.

“I know everyone is really anxious to get there, but I don’t think anything abnormal is going on in Washington,” Smith said.

The increase in breeding pairs was particularly welcome news for Jay Shepherd, the wolf program lead for Conservation Northwest.

“It’s good news in terms of the number of breeding pairs, which is what’s going to get us to recovery and to a population that is geographically more diverse than it is now,” he said. “They are starting to spread and that’s good. And I think that reproduction in the Okanogan is important. That’s what’s going to work.”

The agency documented breeding pairs in the Loup Loup, Lookout, Sullivan Creek and Teanaway packs.

Four new wolf packs formed in 2020, according to WDFW; the Navarre Pack in Okanogan County, the Vulcan Pack in Ferry County, the Onion Creek Pack in Stevens County, and wolves also reestablished in the area formerly occupied by the Skookum Pack in Pend Oreille County.

For the first time, the Northern Cascades recovery region met recovery goals, said Ben Maletzke, WDFW’s statewide wolf specialist. State biologists, however, were “unable to document a pack in the South Cascades,” he told the commissioners.

The agency captured 12 wolves from eight packs. WDFW has collared 16 wolves.

WDFW is in the process of doing a periodic status review of the wolf population. Depending on the outcome of that review, Smith said, WDFW biologists could recommend changing the recovery goals. The WDFW commission – a nine-member appointed governance body – would have to approve any status change.

Wolves killed nine cattle in 2020 and injured 30 cattle and one herding dog, according to WDFW investigations. All told, seven wolf packs were involved in at least one confirmed livestock depredation. That figure is the highest involved in livestock attacks since wolves naturally returned to the state in 2008. Smith said that only two of those packs – the Wedge and Leadpoint, both located in Northeast Washington – had more than two recorded depredations.

“It seems like a lot,” she said. “But still it follows the pattern of conflict being relatively rare and focused.”

In response, WDFW staff killed three Wedge pack wolves.

Another eight wolves were killed by tribal hunters and one was shot due “to a perceived threat to human safety.” Another wolf was hit and killed by a vehicle and two died of natural causes (old age and a broken leg leading to infection).

All told, WDFW spent $1,554,292 on wolf management and recovery in 2020.

That included $110,035 in reimbursement to 33 livestock producers through the state’s damage prevention agreement program.

WDFW spent an additional $151,640 on 23 contracted range riders, $17,201 to five producers for livestock losses caused by wolves, $77,281 for lethal removal operations in response to depredations on livestock and $1,198,135 for wolf management and research.

In 2019, the state documented a minimum of 108 wolves in 21 packs and 10 breeding pairs. That’s compared to 97 wolves in 22 packs and nine breeding pairs in 2018. The survey sets a minimum number of wolves and packs in the state and guides management decisions for the year to come.

In 2019, for the first time since wolves naturally returned to Washington in 2008, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation did not formally survey wolves on their lands because they consider wolves recovered. Instead, they relied on incidental wolf sightings reported by hunters, trappers, the public and biologist in the field.

Forty-six

wolves were reported by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in 2020. In early 2019, the tribe removed limits on wolf hunting and tribal members may hunt wolves year-round.

Commissioners Kim Thorburn and Molly Linville called the report good news. “I’m celebrating,” Thorburn said.

In January, wolves were delisted by the federal government, a move WDFW supported. Now, WDFW manages wolves throughout the state.

Wolves naturally returned to Washington in 2008 after reintroductions in Idaho and Montana. Wolves were exterminated from most of the United States by the 1930s, but they have made a comeback in the West following reintroductions in 1995.

Oregon’s wolf population grew by 9.5% in 2020, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife report released this week. There are 173 documented wolves in Oregon.

In Idaho, the state Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday that would allow the state to hire private contractors to kill about 90% of the wolves roaming the state. The bill aims to cut the wolf population from about 1,500 to 150. Earlier this year, Montana legislators introduced similar measures targeting wolves. In Wisconsin, hunters and trappers killed 216 wolves in three days.

These regionwide developments, particularly Idaho’s proposed legislation, prompted commissioner Fred Koontz to add a note of caution.

“While we can celebrate what’s going in Washington, long-term persistence of wolves in Washington is totally linked to what’s happening in British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and California,” he said. “This department supported the (federal) delisting of wolves and I think we have a responsibility to keep a close eye on it and speak out if we think the federal government should step back in.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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