Published: April 2021
Each year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) submits a report to the federal government for Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 6 activities. This document details the results of its annual gray wolf (Canis lupus) population survey and summarizes wolf recovery and management activities from the previous year.
Washington’s wolf population was virtually eliminated in the 1930s but has rebounded since 2008, when WDFW wildlife managers documented a resident pack in Okanogan County. Since then, the number of wolves has increased every year, to a minimum of 132 in areas managed by WDFW and 46 wolves reported on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CTCR) in 2020. Most packs range across public and private land in Ferry, Stevens, and Pend Oreille counties in the northeast corner of the state and southeast Washington, but increasing numbers are present in the north-central region.
Gray Wolves’ Legal Status
Gray wolves have been classified as endangered in all or part of Washington since federal lawmakers enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ended ESA protection for wolves in the eastern third of the state but preserved it for those in the western two-thirds. Under state law, wolves were listed as endangered in 1980. They retained that classification throughout the state in 2020, regardless of their status under federal law.
Washington’s wolf recovery activities are guided by the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, adopted in 2011 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. Under the plan, Washington is divided into Recovery Regions: Eastern Washington, the Northern Cascades, and the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast. In addition, a WDFW-approved protocol sets forth criteria for the department to collaborate with livestock producers to minimize conflicts with wolves.
WDFW had lead wolf management authority in the Eastern Washington recovery region, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the lead role in the other two recovery regions in 2020. Wolves that inhabit tribal lands in the Eastern Washington recovery region are managed by those specific tribal entities. However, in January 2021, wolves were federally delisted from the Endangered Species Act and are currently managed by WDFW as a state endangered species.
Wolf Recovery and Management in 2020
Key developments in 2020 included:
- The state’s minimum year-end wolf population increased by 22 percent and marks the 12th consecutive year of population growth. As of Dec. 31, 2020, WDFW counted 132 wolves in 24 packs in areas managed by the department. Thirteen of these were successful breeding pairs. These numbers compare with the previous year’s count of 108 wolves in 21 packs and 10 breeding pairs. Because this is a minimum count, the total number of wolves in Washington is likely higher.
- The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CTCR) reported 46 wolves in five packs in 2020. The CTCR considers the population of wolves on their lands recovered and did not allocate the same resources as WDFW into year-end counts for 2020. Numbers provided by CTCR reflect winter numbers incidentally gathered by biologists, hunters, trappers, and public observations rather than efforts to count wolves that include year-end track, aerial, and camera surveys conducted by WDFW and other partners for 2020. Therefore, it should be noted that these numbers are not comparable to previous year’s numbers and come with less certainty.
- Pack sizes (number of individuals) ranged from two to thirteen wolves. Most packs contained three to six individuals.
- As in past years, survey results represent minimum counts of wolves in the state due to the difficulty of accounting for every animal – especially lone wolves without a pack.
- Since the first WDFW survey in 2008, the state’s wolf population has grown by an average of 26 percent per year.
- State, tribal, and federal wildlife managers captured 12 wolves (eight new wolves and four recaptures) from eight packs during the year and monitored a total of 21 unique radiocollared wolves from 14 different packs in 2020.
- Four new packs formed in 2020. The Navarre Pack formed 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.
- Each year’s population total reflects population losses and population gains. WDFW documented 16 wolf mortalities during 2020 (Table 1), including three removed by the department in response to wolf-caused livestock conflict, eight legally harvested by tribal hunters, one killed by a vehicle, two of natural causes (one of old age, one of broken leg and infection), one that was shot due to a perceived threat to human safety and one of unknown causes.
- Wolf populations are managed to ensure progress toward the recovery goals established in WDFW’s 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. Guidance from the plan states that the department will minimize the loss of cattle and other livestock without undermining the long-term prospects for the recovery of a self-sustaining wolf population.
- WDFW investigators confirmed nine cattle as being killed by wolves during the year. Another 30 cattle and one herding dog were confirmed as being injured by wolves. Additionally, three calf mortalities and two calf injuries were considered probable depredations by wolves after investigation. Seven packs (24% of known packs) were involved in at least one confirmed livestock depredation. Seventy-six percent of the known packs were not involved in any known livestock depredation.
- During calendar year 2020, WDFW spent a total of $1,554,292 on wolf management activities, including $110,035 in reimbursement to 33 livestock producers for Damage Prevention Cooperative Agreements – Livestock (DPCA-L) non-lethal conflict prevention expenses (range riding, specialized lighting, and fencing, etc.), $151,640 for 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 activities.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Spokane Tribe of Indians, USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2021. Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2020 Annual Report. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Ellensburg, WA, USA.