Frequently Asked Questions About Wolves in Washington

Lethal action to protect sheep from Huckleberry wolf pack

General Information

Wolf Management

Wolves and Livestock

Wolves and Big Game

Wolves and People and Pets



GENERAL INFORMATION

Were wolves re-introduced to Washington?

No. Wolves are returning naturally from dispersing populations in nearby states and provinces. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) never reintroduced or transplanted wolves into Washington, nor has any other state or federal agency.

How did wolves re-populate the West?

In the mid 1990s, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) re-introduced 66 wolves from Canada into Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – 31 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and 35 into central Idaho. At that time, about 60 wolves were documented in the northwestern corner of Montana (see Map 1). Since then, wolf populations continue to recover throughout the Northern Rocky Mountains, where the USFWS documented more than 287 wolf packs in the 2011 (see Map 2 and Map 3). In fact, populations have recovered to the point that hunting and trapping are now legal in some states. As these wolf populations continue to recover and expand into other areas, it is likely that Washington will experience additional dispersing wolves in the near future.

A 2011 study, “Understanding People in Places,” conducted by Colorado State University for WDFW concluded that Washington residents generally found natural recolonization of the state by wolves to be acceptable (74.5%). However, residents in rural counties where wolves would most likely re-populate were less accepting than those in urban centers (see Map 4).

How many wolf packs are in Washington?

As of March 2013, WDFW had confirmed  ten wolf packs in Washington state. See the Washington Wolf Pack Website for current information about documented wolf packs.Identifying the number of known wolf packs is an ongoing process. Packs are documented by trapping, radio-collaring, ear-tagging, or through photos from motion-triggered monitoring cameras placed in anticipated wolf locations. . When wolves are captured, hair or tissue samples are taken for DNA testing to learn their relationship with other wolves in the west and sometimes to confirm if the animals are pure wild wolves (and not wolf-dog hybrids). Captured animals are always released in the area of capture.

How many wolves are in a pack?

Two or more wolves traveling together can constitute a “pack,” but a pack typically consists of five to 10, including the alpha male and female. The rest of the pack may consist of pups from the current year and a few offspring from the past year or two that are subordinate to the breeding adults. Packs can be substantially larger in size (up to 20 or more wolves) in locations with abundant prey.

How large is one pack’s territory?

Wolf pack territories vary in size, usually ranging from 200 to 500 square miles. Territory size is typically based on the density of prey—more deer or elk in the territory results in wolves traveling less to find food. Territory size is also dependent on the size of the pack and the density of other neighboring wolf packs. Wolves spend about 35% of their time traveling, covering roughly 20 to 30 miles per day – but sometimes more than 100 miles a day when prey is scarce.  

What is the life history (life cycle) of the gray wolf?

Gray wolves breed once a year between January and March (normally only the male and female leaders of the pack.) After a 63-day gestation period, the mother gives birth to an average of four to six pups in April or May. Wolf pups are born blind and deaf, weighing about one pound. During the first three weeks, while the pups are nursing every four to six hours and still need help regulating their body temperatures, the mother usually stays with them in the den, eating food brought to her by other members of the pack. 

The pups are weaned at about eight weeks of age after learning to eat more solid food in the form of regurgitated meals from the female or other members of the pack. Also at this time they are moved to one or more “rendezvous sites,” where they spend the remainder of the summer. At six to eight months, the pups begin to travel with the pack and join in hunts. 

After reaching sexual maturity, usually at two to three years, most wolves leave their pack to find territories and mates of their own. Fewer than half of wolf pups live to adulthood. Few wolves in the wild live more than five years. Humans are the largest cause of wolf mortality. Territorial conflicts between packs, injuries from hunting prey, disease and starvation are other common causes of death.

Why do wolves howl?

The howl of a wolf is one of its primary sources of communication and is used in a variety of situations, including gathering the pack, defense of territories, maintaining social bonds with other pack members, and attracting a mate. Wolves are highly social animals that utilize a complex system of non-verbal behaviors to regulate and maintain pack structure.

I THINK I saw a wolf, but how do I know for sure?

Wild wolves generally stay away from people, so seeing one is rare. However, their numbers are increasing quickly in Washington and the department appreciates hearing from members of the public about any sightings, tracks, or howling they observe.

Coyotes are the wildlife species most similar to wolves, so some of the best clues for identifying an animal are in the wolf-coyote comparison illustration distributed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Coyotes are often seen because they are abundant throughout Washington and can be somewhat bold.

One of the greatest differences between the two species is size, which can be difficult to estimate determine at a distance. A gray wolf is much larger than a coyote. Wolves weigh 80 to 120 pounds, while coyotes weigh 20 to 50 pounds. Track size measures about four by five inches for wolves, compared to two by two and a half inches for coyotes. 

Ear shape is also much different; wolves have somewhat rounded ears while coyotes have taller, pointed ears. Wolves have a broader, shorter snout, while coyotes have a narrow more pointed nose. A wolf’s howl is long and drawn out, while a coyote produces a shorter, yapping sound. Fur coloration can be quite similar between wolves and coyotes and therefore is not a good characteristic for separating the two species. For more visual comparisons, visit: Wolf Identification: Physical Appearance of Wolves.

Large dogs and wolf-dog hybrids can also be mistaken for wolves, although they usually act more familiar with people. Wolf-dog hybrids can be unpredictable and aggressive. Some hybrids have been released into the wild, living like feral dogs. Distinctions between these hybrids and wild wolves can sometimes be made only by DNA testing.

I KNOW I saw a wolf, so where do I report it?

WDFW and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service keep track of wolf sightings and other evidence of wolves in Washington (tracks, scat, howling, and photos from motion-sensitive remote cameras). The best way to make a report is through WDFW's Online Wolf Reporting Form or via the toll-free wildlife reporting hotline, 1-877-933-9847.

Do wolves have tapeworms that can spread to other animals and people?

The Echinoccus granulosus tapeworm is found almost worldwide in canids, including wolves, dogs, coyotes, and foxes. The eggs of this tapeworm are spread in canid feces. Wild and domestic ungulates (deer, elk, moose, sheep, goats, swine, etc.) are the normal intermediate hosts, carrying a cyst form in their organs. When canids (including dogs) feed on these infected organs, they become tapeworm hosts. (For tapeworm life-cycle information, and recent research on this topic, click here)

Humans are very rarely infected, because they would have to ingest tapeworm eggs in canid feces or drink water contaminated with canid feces. The parasites are highly unlikely to be spread by handling ungulate capes or meat, unless those parts are contaminated with canid feces and handlers do not use good basic hygiene. Likewise, if a pet dog rolled in feces infected with tapeworm eggs, good hygiene is required after handling the dog. Humans cannot be infected by ingesting cysts found in ungulates. These parasitic tapeworms are not wind-born nor transmitted in any way other than direct ingestion of eggs in feces.

All parasites or diseases harbored by any wildlife should be taken seriously. Good hygiene should always be used when handling live wild animals, dead wild animals, their secretions, or their products.

How are we managing wolves in Washington?

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a Wolf Conservation and Management Plan in December 2011 after nearly five years of development with a citizen advisory group and extensive public review. The plan includes recovery goals for wolves, which are classified by the state as endangered across Washington, along with procedures for managing predation on livestock and impacts to wild elk, deer, moose and other ungulate populations.

The recovery goals call for de-listing wolves when 15 successful breeding pairs are present for at least three years, with at least four in Eastern Washington, four in the Northern Cascades, four in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast, and three anywhere in the state. The de-listing process could also occur if 18 successful breeding pairs are documented in a single year with at least four pairs in each recovery region.

The plan provides a variety of non-lethal and lethal measures to control wolves that prey on livestock and establishes conditions for compensating livestock owners who lose livestock to wolf predation. The plan also provides measures to manage wolf predation if they are causing a significant reduction in ungulate populations.

Is lethal removal of wolves a necessary management tool?

Yes, in some circumstances. The state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan is designed to re-establish a sustainable wolf population in Washington, but also recognizes that chronic depredation by wolves on livestock could undermine that goal. Restoring wolf populations depends on a combination of sound science and public acceptance of the species – particularly by those most affected by wolves. If ranchers, hunters and people living in rural areas lose confidence in wildlife managers’ ability to manage the species, wolves will face an increasingly hostile reception. The plan includes criteria for wolf recovery along with specific guidelines for the use of lethal measures to prevent attacks on livestock. The plan also allows WDFW to use lethal measures to manage wolf predation on at-risk ungulate populations if wolf numbers reach or exceed the recovery objective within a region where predation occurs.

A 2011 study, “Understanding People in Places,” conducted by Colorado State University for WDFW found that there is a high level of support among residents for wolf control measures. Specifically, residents were accepting of lethal removal of wolves that have caused loss of livestock (65.9%), limiting the number of wolves in certain areas if they are contributing to localized declines in deer or elk (69.8%) (See Map 5 and Map 6)

Is WDFW concerned that killing wolves will set back the statewide recovery effort?

No. Wolves are very adaptable animals that can thrive in a variety of habitats so long as they have adequate food and are not exterminated through indiscriminant killing. Thousands of wolves have been killed in the Rocky Mountain states in recent decades, yet the species continues to recover in that region.

A model developed by Washington State University in conjunction with the authors of Washington’s wolf plan found that removing wolves pose a very low risk to the statewide recovery objectives once population levels reach numbers currently documented in the eastern Washington recovery region. The real danger to recovery is if people lose confidence in WDFW’s ability to manage wolves and take matters into their own hands.

What role does the federal government have in Washington’s wolf plan?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the lead management authority over wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington, where wolves are federally listed as endangered. WDFW is the lead agency in the eastern third of the state.  Funding for wolf management is supplemented by federal wildlife grants administered by the USFWS.  

Aren’t the wolves that were reintroduced into Yellowstone non-native or different from earlier wolves?

No. There is no factual basis to the belief that the wolves reintroduced in the mid-1990s to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park from west-central Alberta and east-central British Columbia differed (being larger and more aggressive) from the wolves that originally occurred in the northern Rocky Mountain states.

Wolves are well known for their ability to disperse long distances from their birth sites. Radio-tracking data demonstrates that the wolves from southeastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta mixed with wolves from Idaho and Montana, along with those from farther north near the source locations of the animals used in the Idaho and Yellowstone reintroductions. When combined with recent research that reveals considerable genetic mixing among wolf populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, this information illustrates that wolves form a single population across the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains and southern Canada.

Recent genetic research involving hundreds of wolves sampled from Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in the 1990s and 2000s found no evidence that the remnant native population of wolves differed from the reintroduced wolves. Thus, the wolves present in these states before wolf recovery began were genetically similar to those used in reintroductions into Yellowstone.

WOLVES AND LIVESTOCK

How do we keep wolves from eating livestock?

Wolves in some areas learn that livestock can be prey. Proactive measures can be taken to help protect livestock, including guarding and herding the animals, use of range riders, wolf-targeted fencing, night penning and removing livestock carcasses from the herd. Especially when used in combination, these tools may temporarily succeed in reducing the vulnerability of livestock to wolf depredation, but are not usually considered permanent solutions.

These measures are encouraged under the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, which provides state technical assistance and allowances for non-lethal harassment of wolves. The plan also authorizes WDFW to use lethal measures to control wolves that cause chronic problems for livestock producers. WDFW may also provide compensation for livestock losses from wolf depredation. For more information see the ”Non-Lethal Control Methods" portion of this website.

Overall, confirmed wolf depredation on livestock is lower than losses from other predators like coyotes, weather, and disease, but impacts to individual livestock producers can be significant. Some wolf packs that live near livestock prey on them, while some do not.

What is done when wolves kill or injure livestock?

When livestock owners report suspected wolf-caused injuries or losses of livestock to WDFW, a depredation investigation team of agency staff respond to the scene to determine if wolves were involved. Other local, state and federal authorities might also be called in to assist with the investigation.

Livestock or livestock carcasses are thoroughly examined, sometimes including full field necropsies, to help determine what kind of predator attacked or killed the animal. (Bears, cougars, wolves and other predators kill in different ways and leave different “signatures” on their prey.)

When wolves are determined to be the cause of injury or death, livestock owners are eligible to receive compensation for their losses, and/or caught-in-the-act wolf kill permits to avoid repeated depredations, depending on the situation. In repeated wolf depredation cases, wolves can be lethally removed to alleviate the problem. See the Dangerous Wildlife Incident Reports website for up-to-date listings on dangerous wildlife investigations.

What is done when wolves kill or injure livestock herding or guarding dogs?

Livestock herding dogs (Border collies, Australian shepherds,etc.) or guarding dogs (Great Pyreness, Anatolian shepherds, etc.) are considered “livestock,” for the intents and purposes of managing wolf-livestock conflicts. The same depredation investigation process is used in the case of injury or loss of such dogs. When wolves are determined to be the cause of injury or death, owners are eligible to receive compensation for their losses, and/or caught-in-the-act wolf kill permits to avoid repeated depredations, depending on the situation. In repeated wolf depredation cases, wolves can be lethally removed to alleviate the problem. See the Dangerous Wildlife Incident Reports website for up-to-date listings on dangerous wildlife investigations.

What land use restrictions come with wolves?

None, other than protecting active den sites from disturbance during the denning period. Wolves are habitat “generalists,” meaning they can adapt to living in a variety of habitats. Wolves basically need two things to thrive: 1) prey and 2) a management approach that prohibits indiscriminate killing. Wolf den sites, where pups are born, are protected by law from disturbance when occupied, just like songbird nests.

But land use restrictions, used to protect some endangered species that depend on specific habitat, are not necessary for wolves. These types of restrictions have never been implemented in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to protect wolves and there are no plans to do so in Washington.

WOLVES AND BIG GAME

What do wolves eat?

Wolves are carnivores and feed primarily on hoofed mammals (“ungulates”) such as deer, elk, moose, caribou, and rarely on mountain goats and bighorn sheep. They also prey to a much lesser extent on beavers, rabbits, and almost any other small animal. Coastal wolves in British Columbia are known to eat salmon. Wolves are also natural scavengers and readily feed on the carcasses of dead animals. 

Won’t wolves threaten the state’s elk and deer populations?

Wolves have caused significant declines in some elk herds in other states. However, statewide elk populations in states such as Idaho and Montana with far more wolves than Washington have remained relatively stable over the past decade. The average number of elk harvested by hunters in those states has also shown little change during that time.

Wolves are just one of many factors affecting elk and deer populations. Others include harsh weather, poor habitat, high hunter harvest rates, and other predators such as cougars and bears. While wolves may contribute to the decline of a weak herd, experience in other states indicates they are seldom the primary cause of that condition.

As Washington’s wolf population continues to grow, WDFW has expanded monitoring efforts to help understand the effect of wolf predation on state herds. The state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan provides WDFW with several options – including lethal measures – to protect at-risk ungulate populations from predation by wolves.

Why don’t I see as many elk or deer in areas with wolves?

Wolves can cause elk or deer to spend more time in heavily forested areas, on steeper slopes, and at higher elevations than they did before wolves were present. These changes in behavior can contribute to the misinterpretation that wolves have caused broad decreases in elk numbers. Research indicates that elk use habitats differently where wolves are present. One study confirmed that when wolves are in the area, elk spend less time in the open and more time in forested cover areas.

Wolves are probably responsible for shifts in where elk or deer herds reside at different times of the year. For example, with the presence of wolves elk that used to reside in large groups in open flat areas may break into much smaller groups in steeper, more forested areas.

How can big game hunters be successful with wolves around?

Based on the experience of other western states with wolves, hunters who adapt to the behavioral changes of elk and deer in the presence of wolves will likely continue to harvest big game at rates similar to those in the past. (Over the past dozen years, an annual average of 27 percent of all deer hunters in Washington harvested deer; an average of 10 percent of all elk hunters statewide harvested elk.) 

As documented by researchers and experienced by sportsmen, wolves cause elk to change their behavior on the landscape. Since the return of wolves to the West, elk tend to linger less in open areas, often move to higher altitudes, and may even leave one valley to seek out more hidden locales in a nearby valley. The adaptations hunters may need to make with this new competitor on the landscape include spending time in new and different areas than traditionally hunted.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wolves are probably affecting hunting in some places, but there are no clear answers that apply across the board. Different combinations and densities of predator and prey species, terrain, vegetation, climate, land ownership patterns, and land uses result in different opportunities for hunters. For example, in mountainous areas, wolf predation seems to be more influential than in areas where livestock are present.

What has been learned from the other Northern Rocky Mountain States?

Elk are a prime food source for wolves. While wolves are impacting elk in a few hunting districts, these are the minority, as elk populations throughout the tri-state area (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) remain high:  According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wolves are probably affecting hunting in some places, but there are no clear answers that apply across the board. Different combinations and densities of predator and prey species, terrain, vegetation, climate, land ownership patterns, and land uses result in different opportunities for hunters

While changes in elk behavior may create a more challenging hunting experience (for wolves as well as people!), elk populations throughout the region remain high.

  • Wyoming: 120,000 elk estimated statewide, 50 percent above objective; the state of Wyoming continues to manage for a reduction in elk population.
  • Montana:  150,000 elk estimated statewide, 14 percent over objective.  Montana has the second highest elk population of any state.
  • Idaho:  Estimated population: 101,100, slightly below objective; 23 of the state's 29 game management zones have elk numbers within targets or above.
How is WDFW helping big game hunters affected by wolves?

WDFW is monitoring big game populations, predator-prey relationships, and hunter harvest closely. If any ungulate population falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years, and/or if hunter harvest decreases by 25 percent below the 10-year average harvest rate for two consecutive years, WDFW may consider reducing wolf abundance in affected areas, where applicable with federal law.

As prescribed by the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, if wolf predation became a primary limiting factor for an “at risk” ungulate population in a wolf recovery region that had at least four successful breeding pairs of wolves, WDFW could consider reducing wolf abundance in the localized area. An “at risk” ungulate population is any federal or state listed species (Selkirk Mountain woodland caribou, Columbian white-tailed deer) or any ungulate population that falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years, and/or if hunter harvest decreases by 25 percent below the 10-year average harvest rate for two consecutive years.

WDFW asks hunters to help monitor wolf numbers and distribution in Washington by using an On-line Reporting System to convey information about wolves and/or wolf sign seen while in the field. This information helps contribute to WDFW’s effort to delist wolves as a state endangered species.

As always, WDFW works to protect, restore and maintain habitat on both public and private land for all Washington’s wildlife, including big game species and predators like bears, cougars and wolves. Ensuring ample habitat for a diverse wildlife community is one of the best, long-term methods to ensure the future of big game hunting.

Will Washington have a hunting season on wolves?

The department plans to recommend that wolves be classified and protected as game animals and carefully managed like other hunted wildlife. When wolves reach recovery objectives across the state and are no longer classified as threatened or endangered, a public process to establish hunting seasons and rules could begin.

How do wolves affect other wildlife?

Behavioral changes are expected of other wild carnivores as wolves compete for prey. Wolf interactions with other carnivores, like coyotes, may shift some species populations in Washington but probably not significantly. Other wildlife may benefit from wolves, either directly as with scavengers on kills, or indirectly with whole ecosystem responses to wolf presence over time.

WOLVES AND PEOPLE AND PETS

Do wolves attack people?

Wild wolves generally fear and avoid people, and rarely pose a threat to human safety. In the past 60 years, there have been two wolf-caused human fatalities in North America (Canada and Alaska). Two broad summaries published in 2002 documented 28 reports of wolf aggression towards humans in North America from 1969 to 2001. Nineteen of these involved wolves habituated to people and five involved people accompanied by domestic dogs. There have been no physical attacks on people by wolves in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming from the time wolf recovery began in the 1980s.

Wolves  passing near, watching, or otherwise behaving in a non-threatening way near humans should not  necessarily be considered dangerous.  But wolves can become habituated to humans in areas where they regularly encounter humans or human food. To avoid habituation, wolves should never be fed or approached. If wolves seem too comfortable near people, or frequent roads or trails where close encounters are  morelikely, they should be hazed using non-lethal methods like air horns or other scare devices.

In the extremely rare event of an encounter with an aggressive wolf, don’t run or turn your back. Stand your ground, act aggressively by stepping toward the wolf and yelling or clapping your hands if it tries to approach.  Use air horns or other loud noise-makers.  Stare directly at the wolf and  retreat slowly while facing the wolf.  Climb a tree if necessary. If a wolf attacks, fight back with any means possible, including bear spray or firearms if necessary.  Wolf-dog hybrids, which cannot necessarily be distinguished from wild wolves, can be more dangerous to humans than wild wolves because they have lost their natural fear of humans. While they are bred from domestic dogs, they still retain the predatory instinct from their wolf ancestry.

Do wolves attack dogs?

Yes. The gray wolf is the ancestor of domestic dogs. Wolves view dogs as competitors or territorial intruders and have attacked and killed them, especially in remote areas. Owners of dogs need to be aware of the potential risk to their dogs if they are in wolf habitat, especially when guarding or herding livestock, hunting, accompanying hikers, or running at large.

In areas occupied by wolves, homeowners should not allow dogs to roam at large or leave dogs outside overnight unless kept in a sturdy kennel. Dogs should be kept on leash or in visual/auditory range and owners should vocalize frequently, including use of whistles.  Dogs should be trained not to chase or approach wildlife and to return on commands. Homeowners should not leave dog food outside and avoid feeding wildlife near home.

Hikers should consider leaving their dogs at home when visiting sites with wolves. Hikers with dogs should keep them on leash or closely controlled.  Hikers should make noise and equip dogs with bells or other noise-makers to alert wolves to the presence of people.  If a wolf is encountered, bring dogs to heel and leash them, and stand between them and the wolf; wolves avoid humans and this often ends the encounter.  Don’t try to break up a physical fight between a wolf and a dog.

Hunters who use dogs in areas where wolves are known to exist (either to find game birds or, where allowed, to find other game animals), should avoid releasing dogs in areas with fresh evidence of wolves (tracks, scat, howling, etc.) Stay in close range of hunting dogs, communicating with them by voice or whistle, and use bells or beeper collars on dogs to alert wolves to the presence of people. Hounds used to tree game should be released only on fresh sign to avoid long chases, and when treeing game,  reached as soon as possible so they are not unattended for long.

How can I protect myself and my dog? 

Be alert and aware of the potential risks when recreating or living in wolf country.  Similar to preventing problems with other wildlife, always keep a clean camp or home site to avoid attracting wolves that might scavenge for food, or more likely prey upon other animals that are attracted to both intentional and non-intentional feeding opportunities.

Wolves very rarely approach people, but may be drawn to dogs that are with people.  If you take a dog with you camping, hiking or hunting in wolf country, recognize the risks and maintain control of the dog at all times. If you live in wolf country, take precautions to protect your dog using indoor shelter (doghouse, shed, barn, etc.) at night, chain link or electric fence around dog yards, and lighting and/or noise-making devices near dog-use areas. Clearing brush and concealing vegetation can help provide a protective perimeter around dog yards.

More tips on living or recreating in wolf country (which Alaska has always been) are available at  the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Living in Wolf Country webpage.

How do wolves interact with pet wolves or wolf-dog hybrids?

Wolf –dog hybrids kept as pets and pet wolves complicate wolf conservation efforts when they are released or escape to the wild. They can be mistaken (by people, not wild wolves) for wild wolves. Wolf-dog hybrids can be more dangerous to humans than wild wolves because they have lost their natural fear of humans. While they are bred from domestic dogs, they still retain the predatory instinct from their wolf ancestry.

Wolves rarely interbreed with other canid species, including dogs and wolf-dog hybrids, because behavioral differences usually keep them distinct.