Wolf Conservation and Management Plan


Published: December 2011

Pages: 301

Author(s): Gary Wiles, Harriet Allen, and Gerald Hayes

Executive Summary

The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for Washington has been developed to guide recovery and management of gray wolves as they naturally disperse into the state and reestablish a breeding population. No wolves have ever been or will be reintroduced into Washington from areas outside the state as part of this plan. This is a state plan. There is no requirement for federal approval of the plan because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has not established federal recovery criteria for wolves in Washington. When approved, the state wolf plan will apply statewide. However, implementation of some measures addressing conflicts (specifically, lethal control) will have to be consistent with federal law in those areas where wolves remain federally listed.

Wolves were classified as endangered in Washington under federal law in 1973 and under state law in 1980. Currently, wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington are listed as endangered under federal law; in the eastern third of the state they have been removed from federal listing. They are listed as endangered under state law throughout Washington. The USFWS is the lead management authority over wolves where they remain federally listed in the state and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is the lead where wolves are federally delisted.

Gray wolves were formerly common throughout most of Washington, but they declined rapidly between 1850 and 1900. The primary cause of this decline was the killing of wolves by Euro- American settlers as ranching and farming activities expanded. Wolves were essentially eliminated as a breeding species from the state by the 1930s. The first fully documented breeding pack was confirmed in 2008. As of July 2011, there were five confirmed packs in the state: two in Pend Oreille County; one in Pend Oreille/Stevens counties; one in Kittitas County; and one in Okanogan/Chelan counties. Only one of these, in Pend Oreille County, was a successful breeding pair in 2010. There were also indications of single additional packs in the Blue Mountains and North Cascades National Park; and at least a few solitary wolves also likely occur in other scattered locations of Washington.

Human-related mortality, particularly illegal killing and legal control actions to resolve conflicts, is the largest source of mortality for the species in the northwestern United States and illegal killing has already been documented in Washington.

Wolves are dispersing into Washington from populations in adjacent states and provinces (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and British Columbia) and some are forming resident breeding packs. In response to this, the need for a state recovery plan per WAC 232-12-297, and in anticipation of the eventual return of all wolf management to the state, the WDFW initiated development of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a state wolf conservation and management plan under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) in 2007. At that time, the former WDFW Director appointed an advisory Wolf Working Group comprised of 17 citizens to provide recommendations on the plan to the agency. Its members represented a broad range of perspectives and values with regard to wolf conservation and management and were representative of the geographic scope of Washington. Public scoping meetings were held around the state and multiple levels of reviews were conducted. Discussions among members of the Wolf Working Group helped frame issues for the plan. Recommendations and suggestions from the public scoping, the Wolf Working Group, scientific peer review, public review, WDFW reviews, and changes made by the Fish and Wildlife Commission have been incorporated into the plan.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure the reestablishment of a self-sustaining population of gray wolves in Washington and to encourage social tolerance for the species by addressing and reducing conflicts. Goals of the plan are to:

  • Restore the wolf population in Washington to a self-sustaining size and geographic distribution that will result in wolves having a high probability of persisting in the state through the foreseeable future (>50-100 years).
  • Manage wolf-livestock conflicts in a way that minimizes livestock losses, while at the same time not negatively impacting the recovery or long-term perpetuation of a sustainable wolf population.
  • Maintain healthy and robust ungulate populations in the state that provide abundant prey for wolves and other predators as well as ample harvest opportunities for hunters.
  • Develop public understanding of the conservation and management needs of wolves in Washington, thereby promoting the public's coexistence with the species.

Three recovery regions were delineated for the state: (1) Eastern Washington, (2) Northern Cascades, and (3) Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast. Target numbers and distribution for downlisting and delisting within the three recovery regions are:

  • To reclassify from state endangered to state threatened status: 6 successful breeding pairs present for 3 consecutive years, with 2 successful breeding pairs in each of the three recovery regions.
  • To reclassify from state threatened to state sensitive status: 12 successful breeding pairs present for 3 consecutive years, with 4 successful breeding pairs in each of the three recovery regions.
  • To delist from state sensitive status: 15 successful breeding pairs present for 3 consecutive years, with 4 successful breeding pairs in each of the three recovery regions and 3 successful breeding pairs anywhere in the state.
  • In addition to the delisting objective of 15 successful breeding pairs distributed in the three geographic regions for 3 consecutive years, an alternative delisting objective is also established whereby the gray wolf will be considered for delisting when 18 successful breeding pairs are present, with 4 successful breeding pairs in the Eastern Washington region, 4 successful breeding pairs in the Northern Cascades region, 4 successful breeding pairs distributed in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast region, and 6 anywhere in the state.

The recovery objectives for downlisting and delisting wolves were developed from a combination of current scientific knowledge about wolves in other locations and in Washington, wildlife conservation and population viability principles, and discussion among the Wolf Working Group, with input from WDFW, scientific peer review, an analysis of assumptions and risks, and changes made by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Fifteen breeding pairs, which represent an estimated 97-361 wolves, are considered minimal to achieve recovery. Several components of the delisting objectives serve to reduce the risk to long-term viability of a wolf population in Washington. These include the geographic distribution requirements across the three recovery regions, the use of successful breeding pairs as a measurement standard, and the three-year requirement for maintaining population robustness on the landscape. It is further recognized that the long-term viability of the state's wolf population will also depend, in part, on immigration from Idaho, Montana, British Columbia, and Oregon.

Persistence modeling suggested that as long as the population was allowed to grow and populate new areas, 15 successful breeding pairs was an adequate recovery objective for delisting. Given those modeling assumptions, there was little or no probability that the population would fall below the delisting goal during the 50 years. However, under scenarios that capped the population at 15 breeding pairs, there was a 93% probability that the wolf population would fall below the delisting goal of 15 breeding pairs during the 50 years and require relisting, even with immigration. With no immigration, the probability rose to 97%.

Translocation is a conservation tool available in the plan that could be used to move wolves from one recovery region to another if they failed to reach the recovery region through natural dispersal. If it were proposed, it would go through an extensive public review process.

The plan outlines a range of management options to address wolf-livestock conflicts. These include both proactive, non-lethal (e.g., modified husbandry methods and non-lethal deterrents) and lethal management options. Implementation of these will be based on the status of wolves to ensure that recovery objectives are met. Non-lethal management will be emphasized while the species is recovering and will transition to more flexible approaches as wolf recovery advances toward a delisted status. The plan includes a program to compensate livestock producers for livestock that is killed or injured by wolves. Under this plan, compensation would be paid for confirmed and probable wolf losses. The plan includes a two-tiered payment system, with higher payments on grazing sites of 100 or more acres where WDFW determines it would be difficult to survey the entire acreage, because it may be difficult to find carcasses on larger sites. Standard payments would be paid on smaller sites of less than 100 acres. The plan also includes working with a multi-interest stakeholder group to evaluate development of a program to compensate livestock owners for unknown losses. The ability to pay compensation will be dependent on available funding and the plan identifies tasks to pursue a variety of potential funding sources.

The effects that wolves will have on elk, deer, and other ungulate populations and hunter harvest are difficult to predict. In Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, where wolf populations currently number more than 1,600 wolves, most elk and deer populations remain at or above management objectives. Wolves have contributed to declining elk populations in a few areas, but are usually one of several causes, including declining habitat conditions, past high human harvest, severe weather conditions, and predation by other predators. In the Great Lakes region, where there are about 4,000 wolves, white-tailed deer populations are thriving and often above local management goals, and annual hunter harvest has remained high. These data suggest that when wolf populations in Washington are in the initial stages of recovery, they could have some localized impacts on elk and deer abundance or habitat use, but little to no effect would be expected on overall ungulate populations in the state. Impacts would be somewhat greater during the latter stages of recovery, but are still expected to be relatively small on a statewide level.

The plan includes management options to address local impacts, if they occur. If WDFW determines that wolf predation is a primary limiting factor for an "at-risk" ungulate population, and the wolf population in that wolf recovery region is at least 4 successful breeding pairs, WDFW could consider moving of wolves, lethal control, or other control techniques in localized areas to reduce wolf abundance in the area occupied by the ungulate population. Management options would include both non-lethal (e.g. moving them to other areas) and lethal measures; non-lethal options would be prioritized while the species is listed.

Two independent public attitude surveys conducted in 2008 and 2009 showed high overall support (~75%) for wolf recovery in Washington among the general public. Implementation of a public outreach and education program is a high priority in the wolf conservation and management plan. It includes providing information and outreach about wolves, living with wolves, preventing and addressing conflicts with livestock and dogs, and wolf-ungulate interactions. It also identifies a task to conduct public attitude and knowledge surveys to determine information needs and develop an outreach plan.

Because wolves are habitat generalists, restrictions on human development and other land use practices should not be necessary to recover wolves in Washington. Experience in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes has shown that no restrictions, other than those occasionally needed to temporarily prevent excessive disturbance at occupied den sites, have been necessary to conserve wolves.

The plan provides an analysis of potential economic impacts (both negative and positive) to specific sectors of Washington's economy as wolves become reestablished in the state. At populations of 50 and 100 wolves, which roughly correspond with the upper levels of abundance during the state endangered and threatened phases, a few livestock producers could be affected. As wolf populations increase in numbers and distribution, more producers could be affected. Depending on funding availability, it is expected that most livestock losses would be offset by compensation programs and assistance with proactive measures. Similarly, populations of 50 and 100 wolves should have few negative effects on big game hunting overall. Larger populations are expected to have greater impacts on game abundance and hunting opportunity, but such impacts become increasingly difficult to predict. Washington could conceivably develop a wolf-related tourist industry, depending on where wolves reestablish, the population levels they achieve, and the ability of tourists to see or hear wolves. Wolf recovery is anticipated to have no economic impact on the state's forest products industry.

Adequate funding for implementing the activities described in this plan is vital to its success. The plan includes estimated costs for activities needed to accomplish important tasks in the first six years of the plan. WDFW will seek funding from a variety of sources, including special state and federal appropriations and private sources, and will initiate partnerships with universities, agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other entities to carry out wolf conservation and management actions in Washington.

Suggested citation

Wiles, G. J., H. L. Allen, and G. E. Hayes. 2011. Wolf conservation and management plan for Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 297 pp.

Related documents

Draft documents

Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.