Published: May 2023
Author(s): Julia B. Smith, Benjamin T. Maletzke, Trent Roussin, and Gabriel R. Spence
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.
Gray wolves in Washington initially received federal protection in 1973, when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The 1987 Northern Rocky Mountain (NRM) Wolf Recovery Plan addressed gray wolf recovery in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but did not include Washington. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a final rule, which included wolves from the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, a small portion of northcentral Utah, and those from the three states in the NRM populations (known as a Distinct Population Segment [DPS]). The eastern third of Washington was included in the DPS designation to account for dispersing wolves from Idaho and Montana populations. However, federal recovery requirements applied only to the three states addressed in the 1987 recovery plan (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming), and no federal wolf recovery requirements were, or have been, developed for any part of Washington. The federal status of wolves in Washington has changed from listed and delisted several times in different parts of Washington. As of this writing, wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are classified as endangered under the ESA and those in the eastern third are federally delisted as part of the recovered NRM wolf population.
Wolves were first listed as endangered by the Washington Department of Game in 1980 because of their historical occurrence in the state and subsequent extirpation. Since 1980, wolves have remained classified as endangered under state law (WAC 220-610-010) throughout Washington.
The first documented breeding pack in Washington was confirmed in 2008. The population has grown steadily since then; as of December 31, 2022, WDFW counted a minimum of 216 wolves in 37 packs with at least 26 successful breeding pairs. Documented mortality ranged from 0-18% annually and averaged 10% of the known population from 2008 – 2022. Legal harvest on tribal lands is the largest source of Washington’s documented wolf mortality from 2008 – 2022 (36% of documented mortality), followed by agency lethal removal in response to conflicts with livestock (24%) and poaching (11%). All human-caused mortality during 2008 – 2022 constitutes 87% of known wolf mortality.
Since WDFW’s first wolf population survey in 2008, the wolf population has increased for 14 consecutive years by an average of 23% per year. Although growth of the number of individual wolves documented has slowed in recent years, which is expected following initial recolonization of habitat formerly completely unoccupied by wolves, the number of documented packs and successful breeding pairs continues to increase. Northeast and southeast Washington wolf population growth has slowed due to wolf reoccupation of most of the available suitable habitat. The 2022 annual population revealed a continued increase in wolf packs and successful breeding pairs in the North and Central Cascades as well as novel presence in the South Cascades.
The Wolf Plan recognized that recovery objectives may need to be revisited as wolves recolonized Washington, stating, “The expectation is that over time, as wolves recolonize Washington, WDFW will be able to collect data from within the state to determine whether the model assumptions are appropriate. If future data reveal that the population dynamics of wolves in Washington are significantly different from those used in the model, these conclusions will need to be reevaluated. Incorporating wolf demographic data specific to Washington will allow WDFW to update predictions of population persistence during wolf recovery phases and to revise the recovery objectives, if needed” (pg. 67-68). It is worth noting that wolf population growth in Washington has largely occurred in the absence of federal protection as the majority (60-86% of packs 2011 – 2022, average 79%) of Washington wolf packs occur in the eastern third of Washington where wolves have not been federally protected since 2011.
Petracca et al. (2023a) developed a model to estimate current and project future population dynamics of wolves in Washington. The previous model (Maletzke et al. 2016) used to inform the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for Washington (Wolf Plan) was developed using data from wolves in the NRM as there was not enough empirical data available from Washington wolves for such an effort at the time. The model from Petracca et al. (2023a) is the first effort of its kind developed using data from Washington’s wolf population rather than data from wolves in other states. They used data from 74 collared wolves and yearly pup and pack counts to parameterize the model, and then projected statewide dynamics over 50 years. Model projections from Petracca et al. (2023a, 2023b) show mean population growth of 1.29 (95% CRI 1.26-1.33) during initial recolonization from 2009-2020 decreasing to 1.03 (IQR 1.00-1.05) in the projection period (2021-2070). Their projections suggest that wolves have a >99% probability of colonizing the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region by 2030, regardless of alternative assumptions about how dispersing wolves select new territories. In the model, only scenarios that included harvest mortality (removal of 5% of the population every six months), increased lethal removals (removal of 30% of the population every four years), and cessation of immigration from out of state resulted in low probabilities (i.e., probabilities <0.30) of meeting recovery goals in the next 50 years. However, although the probability of meeting recovery goals was predicted to be low in those scenarios, all management scenarios that were analyzed resulted in a predicted geometric mean of population growth that was at or above 1, indicating long-term population stability or growth of Washington’s wolf population, depending on the scenario.
Washington’s wolf population has far exceeded the Wolf Plan objectives for delisting in terms of the number and persistence of successful breeding pairs. However, the Wolf Plan objectives also consider wolf presence in each of the state’s three recovery regions (Figure 8); furthermore, all listed classifications (e.g., endangered, threatened, sensitive) consider a significant portion of the species’ range within the state. WAC 220-610-110 (section 2.9) defines a “significant portion of its range” as “that portion of a species' range likely to be essential to the long term survival of the population in Washington.”
Model projections from Petracca et al. (2023a, 2023b) indicate Washington’s wolf population currently occupies an area essential to their long-term survival and is not in danger of extinction or becoming endangered with their current distribution and population trend. However, the geographic distribution standards of the Wolf Plan have not yet been met for the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region. No successful breeding pairs have been documented yet in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region, although the first known pack was documented in this region as of 2022. Although individual wolves have been detected in western Washington (i.e., west of the Cascades [where models indicate most unoccupied, suitable wolf habitat in the state remains; Maletzke et al. 2016, Petracca et al. 2023a]), no known packs or reproductive individuals have been documented as of 2022.
Based on 14 consecutive years of population growth, population modeling predictions that indicate Washington’s wolf population is robust and will continue to grow and expand its range (including in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery region), and ongoing state and federal protections, we conclude that the wolf does not meet the definition of State Endangered, which requires that the species is “seriously threatened with extinction” (WAC 220-610-110).
Similarly, WDFW believes that the wolf does not best fit the definition of State Threatened, which requires that a species is “...likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout a significant portion of its range within the state without cooperative management or removal of threats” (WAC 220-610-110). Current information does not indicate that wolves are threatened with extinction or likely to be threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future in Washington state.
WDFW’s draft recommendation is to reclassify the wolf to State Sensitive, “vulnerable or declining and is likely to become endangered or threatened in a significant portion of its range within the state without cooperative management or removal of threats” (WAC 220-610-110). This status reflects the significant progress toward recovery that Washington’s wolf population has made since the original state listing in 1980 but recognizes that wolves remain vulnerable in western Washington and should continue to be managed for recovery within the state as a protected species. Continued population growth and range expansion will depend on the robustness of source populations in eastern Washington (as well as neighboring states and provinces) and cooperative management to ensure sources of human-caused mortality do not impede recovery.
WDFW recommends observing the Wolf Plan recovery targets for delisting of at least four successful breeding pairs in each recovery region. We believe that these targets are attainable through natural recolonization and ensure adequate distribution of reproducing wolves throughout the state. WDFW does not recommend delisting wolves at this time.
Downlisting wolves to state sensitive status would continue to protect them under RCW 77.15.130 and protections precluding hunting would remain in place. The definitions of State Threatened and State Sensitive under WAC 220-610-110 are very similar and both fall under the designation of protected wildlife under RCW 77.15.130. Appendix A shows differences in conservation/management provisions for wolves under endangered and protected state species classifications and can assist policy makers in weighing the implications of future management actions. WDFW anticipates receiving additional information through the Draft Periodic Status Review public process that will help explore how to consider these complex issues.
WDFW remains committed to the recovery and long-term sustainability of Washington’s wolf population. WDFW will continue to work closely with partners, stakeholders, and communities, just as we have over the past decade, on the recovery, conservation, and management of wolves in Washington, with a focus on reducing conflict between wolves and livestock and achieving statewide recovery objectives.