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News / Sports / Outdoors

Count shows wolves increasing in Washington

260 wolves in 42 packs up 20% over past year

By Thomas Clouse, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 27, 2024, 6:02am

The number of wolves is increasing in Washington, although breeding pairs declined by one, according to information released this week by the state agency that tracks their numbers.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that agency employees and partners with several area tribes have counted 260 wolves in 42 packs in the Evergreen State. That’s an increase of about 20% over 2023, and it marks the 15th consecutive year that the number of wolves has grown.

While up from the 216 wolves counted in 2023, the number of breeding pairs, which raised at least two pups through the end of 2023, was down by one from 2023 to 25.

The vast majority of the wolves live in Eastern Washington, although a few have begun to be seen across the Cascades, which is key for the state’s recovery effort.

“Although the first pack to recolonize the South Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region only had one wolf during the year end counts in 2023, we have observed multiple collared wolves south of Interstate 90 in the last year,” WDFW Director Kelly Susewind said in a news release. “This likely means it is only a matter of time before new packs begin to establish in that recovery region.”

Just to the east in Idaho, the Gem State is home to about 1,337 wolves. However, that was based on 2022 numbers.

Reached Tuesday, Rick Ward, state wildlife manager for the Idaho Fish and Game, said the wolf survey results for 2023 are not expected to be released until July.

But last year, former Idaho Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever, who retired in February, noted that the 1,337 wolves estimated to be living in the Gem State for 2022 was too high for state wildlife managers.

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“There’s been a concerted effort by Fish and Game staff, hunters, trappers and other partners and agencies to reduce wolf conflicts with livestock and bring the wolf population in balance with prey species, particularly elk,” Schriever said in a January 2023 news release. “We are encouraged by efforts that have resulted in a drop in wolf numbers, and this aligns with our long-term goal to reduce Idaho’s wolf population.

“We’d like to see it fluctuate around 500, which is outlined in our draft wolf management plan and aligns with the federal rule that delisted wolves,” Schriever said.

Wolves had been hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s. But they were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995 and Washington in 2008.

Since then, their recovery has continued to spark controversy between groups such as cattlemen associations that argue states don’t do enough to protect the livestock industry and naturalists, who push to allow for natural balance for the nation’s wild places.

Washington’s statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke noted that while the number of the state’s wolves continues to grow, the state did not have corresponding livestock losses.

The state had 23 “confirmed or probable” depredation events in 2023, and some 78% of the known packs were not involved in any of livestock attacks. Some nine were implicated in at least one confirmed or probable attack, and only two packs had two or more livestock attacks, according to the release.

“Livestock producers have worked closely with WDFW staff in the past year, along with community partners and range riders, to use non-lethal methods to discourage wolves from negatively interacting with domestic animals,” Maletzke said in the release. “These proactive and reactive efforts require significant investments in time and resources by livestock operators and others but have reduced the number of wolf depredations and lethal removal of wolves.”

Washington released the first-ever status review for wolves in the state and recommended wolves be reclassified to sensitive status based on significant progress toward recovery objectives. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to make a decision on the reclassification proposal in July.

But wolf recovery supporter Amaroq Weiss, a senior wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, criticized Washington policy makers for seeking to reduce wolf protections.

“The department says reducing wolf protections would show it’s making progress towards recovery, but this report tells a different story,” Weiss said in a news release. “Real progress requires a continued commitment to provide strong protections to wolves so they can safely disperse into all three recovery regions and establish territories and families there.”

She noted that the state reported that at least 36 wolves died in 2023.

Of those, three were killed for livestock conflicts. Another 22 died from tribal hunting by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which retain tribal treaty rights for hunting on their reservation. Some five wolves died from vehicle strikes, and one was killed by a cougar.

Of the remaining five known deaths, four remain under investigation and one died of unknown causes.

Washington’s wolf plan divides the state into three recovery regions with breeding pair population objectives designated for each. Currently, no breeding pairs have yet been established in the third recovery region, which encompasses the southern Cascades and north coast.

Weiss argued that if the state wildlife managers succeed in reducing state wolf protections, it could lead to more permits for ranchers to kill or injure wolves and fewer habitat protections.

“Even the state knows that some of Washington’s best wolf habitat is in the third recovery region in the western portions of the state,” Weiss said. “I’m pleased to see the agency greatly reduced its own killing of wolves this year, but with 36 deaths, fewer breeding pairs and none at all in the third recovery region, wolves still need protection.

“Instead of bending to political pressure from wolf opponents,” she continued, “the department should continue to focus on nonlethal prevention measures and education.”

Earlier this year, federal officials announced that they declined to restore protections to wolves in the western U.S. after finding that the animals are not in danger of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in February it was rejecting petitions seeking Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves. The finding kept management of the species under state control in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of eastern Oregon and Washington.