When Snoqualmie Cattle Company posted a photo of suspected wolf in the Indian Hill area of Snoqualmie (captured by a trusted friend’s trail camera) on their Facebook page, owner Heather Vincent never expected it to spark a firestorm of comments and debate. She simply wanted people to know a wolf had been in the area. The photo is time-stamped April 23, 2015.
The social media debate the photo sparked is somewhat typical when it comes to the contentious topic of wolves, as the native animal was almost completely wiped out early last century – purposely by humans – and then reintroduced some 60 years later.
Ranchers worry for their livestock. Hunters worry wolves will deplete elk and deer levels. Conservationists see how wolves benefit the ecosystem. Old folklore leads some to fear for their personal safety.
Wolves Reintroduced to Wild
In the mid 1990’s, while on the endangered species list, wolves were [intentionally] reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. In this Northern Rocky Mountain region, the adaptable wolf has thrived and according to some environmentalists, greatly improved the ecosystem of Yellowstone.
Over the past two decades wolves have also re-colonized in Washington, naturally dispersing from neighboring populations in Idaho and British Columbia.
In the western two-thirds of Washington, wolves are protected by the National Endangered Species Act, with Washington State listing the gray wolf as a native endangered species and protecting it statewide.
Wolves aren’t like other Washington endangered species, though. They didn’t decline due to a loss of habitat or exploitation. Instead, they were intentionally extirpated in the 1930’s to reduce their impact on livestock. Wolves are resilient, and do not require additional habitat protections like other endangered animals. They can thrive in many suitable habitats if there is sufficient prey.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), wolves are carnivores and feed mostly on hoofed mammals (“ungulates”) like deer, elk, moose, caribou, and sometimes mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
WDFW states wolves “generally fear and avoid people, rarely posing a threat to human safety. In the past 60 years, there have been two wolf-caused human fatalities in North America.” Yet, wolves bring with them public safety concerns.
Washington has the smallest land base and second highest human population among western states, with large gaps between areas of suitable wolf habitat. For that reason, experts think wolf populations may not expand as fast here as in Rocky Mountain States. But the population is growing.
According to new survey numbers from the WDFW, the endangered wolf population continues to grow. In 2014, it increased by 30%, with four new packs formed. As of December 31st, at least 68 gray wolves, in 16 packs and with five breeding pairs, were living in Washington – east of the Cascades. In 2013 there were 52 wolves.
Hunters have reported seeing wolves farther west, but there has been no confirmed documentation of wolves in Western Washington. But on April 27th, a suspected black-colored wolf was hit and killed on I-90 east of North Bend, near milepost 41. DNA is currently being tested and if it turns out the animal was a wolf, it will be the first confirmed wolf west of the Cascades.
Wolf Management in Washington
Washington’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was put in place to re-establish a sustainable wolf population, and also deal with the depredation of livestock that sometimes accompanies wolves. The plan outlines the criteria for wolf recovery along with specific guidelines for using lethal measures to prevent livestock attack. The plan also allows the WDFW to use lethal measures to manage wolf predation on at-risk ungulate (deer, elk, etc) populations if wolf numbers reach or exceed the recovery objective within a region where predation occurs.
For more information on the gray wolf in Washington visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website.