Published: April 9, 2022
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 206 wolves reported in 2021. 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 and central WA region.
Gray Wolves’ Legal Status
Gray wolves have been classified as endangered in all or part of Washington since federal lawmakers enacted the 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.
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 USFWS had the lead role in the other two recovery regions up until January 2021. Wolves that inhabit tribal lands in the Eastern Washington recovery region are managed by those specific tribal entities. In January 2021, wolves were federally delisted from the Endangered Species Act and were managed by WDFW as a state endangered species. Then on February 10, 2022, wolves were federally relisted in the western two-thirds and USFWS resumed the lead role in the recovery of wolves in the North Cascades and the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery regions. Gray wolves outside of the Northern Rocky Mountain population are now protected under the ESA as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in the remaining states. The USFWS is currently evaluating the status of gray wolves in the western U.S., including the Northern Rocky Mountains, to determine whether ESA protection is again warranted for those wolves.
Wolf Recovery and Management in 2021
Key developments in 2021 included:
- The state’s minimum year-end wolf population increased by 16 percent and marks the 13th consecutive year of population growth. As of Dec. 31, 2021, WDFW and Tribes counted 206 wolves in 33 packs in Washington State. Nineteen of these were successful breeding pairs. These numbers compare with the previous year’s count of 178 wolves in 29 packs and 16 breeding pairs. Because this is a minimum count, the total number of wolves in Washington is likely higher.
- The previous two years (2019 and 2020), Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CTCR) had not allocated the resources toward counting wolves on their lands nor were they utilizing the same methods as WDFW and other tribal partners. However, this past year and during winter the CTCR allocated resources to monitor wolves the same way as WDFW and other tribal partners. Therefore the numbers are merged back together for this year’s annual wolf report as they had been in previous years.
- Pack sizes (number of individuals) ranged from two to ten 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 25 percent per year.
- State, federal, and tribal biologists captured 17 wolves from 12 different packs and monitored a total of 29 unique radio-collared wolves from 20 different packs in 2021.
- Four new packs formed in 2021 including the Columbia Pack in Columbia County, the Keller Ridge Pack in Ferry County, the Dominion Pack in Stevens County, and the Shady Pass Pack in Chelan County.
- Five wolves were known to have dispersed from their natal packs in 2021 including one wolf that dispersed from the Naneum pack and crossed Interstate 90 headed south and is currently moving around in South Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region.
- The Naneum Pack was not located during the winter survey effort and the two collared individuals dispersed from that pack in November.
- Each year’s population total reflects population losses and population gains. WDFW documented 30 wolf mortalities during 2021 (Table 1), including two lethally removed in response to wolf-livestock conflict, 22 legally harvested by tribal hunters, four killed by vehicles, and two mortalities still under investigation.
- 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 five cattle were killed by wolves during the year. Another eight cattle were confirmed injured by wolves. Additionally, two calf mortalities and six calf injuries were considered probable depredations by wolves after investigation. Six packs (18% 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 (including probable depredations).
- During calendar year 2021, WDFW spent a total of $1,421,393 on wolf management activities, including $111,649 in reimbursement to 30 livestock producers for Damage Prevention Cooperative Agreements – Livestock (DPCA-L) non-lethal conflict prevention expenses (range riding, specialized lighting and fencing, etc.), $205,969 for 23 contracted range riders, $20,866 to four claims for livestock losses caused by wolves, $19,957 for lethal removal operations in response to depredations on livestock, and $1,062,952 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. 2022. Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2021 Annual Report. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Ellensburg, WA, USA.