OLYMPIA - Washington state's wolf population grew by more than 30 percent and formed four new packs last year, according to an annual survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The survey shows the presence of at least 68 gray wolves in the state through Dec. 31, 2014, up from a minimum of 52 wolves counted in 2013. It also documents 16 wolf packs and at least five successful breeding pairs last year.
Donny Martorello, WDFW carnivore specialist, said the latest findings point to continued growth in the state's wolf population under the state's recovery plan.
"While we can't count every wolf in the state, the formation of four new packs is clear evidence that wolves are recovering in Washington," he said. "Since 2011, the number of confirmed wolf packs has more than tripled in our state."
Gray wolves, all but eliminated from western states in the last century, are now recovering under legal protections in several states. Wolves are protected under Washington law throughout the state and under federal law in the western two-thirds of the state.
Martorello said WDFW conducted the survey by using a combination of aerial surveys, remote cameras, wolf tracks, and signals from seven wolves fitted with radio-collars.
The four new packs - Goodman Meadows, Profanity Peak, Tucannon, and Whitestone - were discovered east of the Cascades, where all of the state's other wolf packs are located. The state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan defines a pack as two or more wolves traveling together in winter.
Martorello said the number of packs would have been even higher if not for the loss of the Ruby Creek pack last spring. One of its two members was struck and killed by a vehicle. The other was accepted for care by Wolf Haven International in Tenino after it was found living among domestic dogs in a small town in Pend Oreille County.
At least nine other wolves also died in 2014. Three were killed by poachers, three died of natural causes, two died of unknown causes, and a breeding female was killed last summer during an effort by WDFW to stop members of the Huckleberry pack from preying on a rancher's sheep in Stevens County.
Attacks on sheep by the Huckleberry pack also pushed the number of livestock killed by wolves to a new record. Martorello said the pack accounted for 33 of the 35 sheep killed or injured by wolves and documented by WDFW in 2014. The department, which recognizes that actual losses were higher than verified to date, also documented four cows and a dog that were attacked by wolves from other packs last year.
Jim Unsworth, WDFW's new director, said wolf recovery in Washington is progressing much as it did in Idaho, where he spent much of his career in wildlife management before taking his new position in February.
"I've been involved in wolf management for more than a decade, and the issues are much the same from state to state," Unsworth said. "Conflicts with livestock are bound to rise as the state's wolf population increases, and we have to do everything we can to manage that situation. So far, wolf predation on livestock has been well below levels experienced in most other states with wolves."
Stephanie Simek, WDFW wildlife conflict manager, said WDFW continues to emphasize the importance of preventive actions in minimizing wolf attacks on livestock. She said WDFW is:
- Expanding partnerships with ranchers to avoid conflicts with wolves. The department has stationed wildlife conflict specialists in communities where wolves are recovering to work with individual producers.
- Expanding its "range rider" program, where ranchers can turn for help if they need assistance guarding their livestock. Range riders have been used by several producers, and the state program will provide an increased human presence in grazing areas.
- Informing livestock owners of the availability of a new carcass pit in Ferry County where they can dispose of dead livestock and other attractants.
- Continuing to offer cost-sharing agreements for ranchers who seek help in funding preventive measures to protect their animals.
Martorello said the scarcity of snow made it more difficult to track wolves late last year, complicating the 2014 survey. As a result, the survey likely underestimates the number of wolves, packs, and breeding pairs, he said.
Martorello noted that the number of confirmed successful breeding pairs in the annual wolf survey has remained the same for the past three years, despite a significant increase in the number of individual wolves. Since 2012, WDFW has documented a total of five breeding pairs between the Eastern Washington and North Cascades recovery regions.
"Given the continued growth of the state's wolf population, there's a good chance that we have breeding pairs east of the Cascade Range we haven't found yet," he said.
No wolf packs or breeding pairs have yet been documented in the South Cascades/Northwest Coast recovery region.
Under the state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, wolves can be removed from the state's endangered species list once 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years among the three designated wolf-recovery regions.
WDFW's wolf survey for 2014 will be available on the department's website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/ by April 3.