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How Many Wolves Are Enough In Washington State?


Washington state officials are developing a wolf management plan for the day wolves lope into their state. Photo by Tracy Brooks/Mission Wolf / USFWS.

Wolves have made a remarkable comeback in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since a recovery plan for the species was launched in the mid-1990s. So successful has that program been that, when coupled with growing wolf populations in northwestern Montana and southern British Columbia, Washington state officials are concerned that the predators soon will find their way into their state. As a result, officials there are developing a management plan. But how many wolves are enough wolves?

Wolves were classified as an endangered species across the state of Washington by the federal government in 1973 and by the state government in 1980. In 2009 the predators were delisted under federal law for the eastern third of Washington, though they remain listed as endangered in the western two-thirds of the state. Well aware that wolves likely will begin to spread across their state, Washington officials are drawing up a management plan that will allow wolves to be delisted as an endangered species statewide...but prevent them from growing too robustly in number.

While the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, under a draft environmental impact statement, is proposing a statewide cap at 15 breeding pairs, the National Parks Conservation Association believes that number is too low. And the organization would like to see the state allow for wolves to roam the Washington peninsula and Olympic National Park.

Wolves are highly controversial animals in the West, where ranchers worry about predation on their livestock and where there are few areas that can offer the millions of acres of public lands where they can roam naturally. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which covers some 18 million acres, is one of the few landscapes capable of providing intact home ranges for packs of wolves. Since the predators were returned to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, the population has grown to more than 100 individuals.

Those animals have proven to be an economic diamond, as it's been estimated that the park and its gateway communities see more than $35 million a year in revenues related to wolf-watching in the park.

The draft management plan currently under review in Washington contains four alternatives; one proposes a cap of six breeding pairs, another of 12 breeding pairs, the preferred alternative cap of 15 breeding pairs, and an alternative that would oppose wolf recovery in the state.

The draft plan, which has been the focus of a series of public meetings this fall, calls for a variety of compensation and wolf control measures to ensure recovery of the species in the state.

Human mortality is the single most important factor influencing recovery of wolves. As such, conserving wolves in Washington and meeting the delisting criteria will necessitate social tolerance for wolves on both public and private lands. It is unusual to include lethal management strategies in a plan for recovery of a listed species. However, to build public tolerance for wolves, a range of proactive, non-lethal, and lethal management options, as well as compensation, are outlined in the four alternatives to address wolf-livestock conflicts. Programs to compensate livestock producers for wolf-caused losses of livestock assist wolf recovery efforts by shifting some of the economic burden associated with wolf restoration away from producers, thereby increasing overall tolerance for the species. Lethal control of wolves may be necessary to resolve repeated wolf livestock conflicts and would be performed to remove problem animals that jeopardize public tolerance for overall wolf recovery. Implementation of management options that include lethal control would be based on the status of wolves to ensure that conservation/recovery objectives are met; and the four alternatives vary on when these management options become available.

The agency's preferred alternative calls for 15 breeding pairs of wolves in three recovery areas -- eastern Washington, the Northern Cascades, and the Southern Cascades/Northwest Coast areas of the state. NPCA officials believe the state is being too conservative with its proposal.

" ... the National Parks Conservation Association urges the agency to consider aiming for more than 15 breeding pairs, which is currently favored in the plan, in order to ensure the viability and recovery of this state-endangered species," said David Graves, NPCA's Northwest field representative. “NPCA also recommends that the plan include translocation of wolves to the Olympic Peninsula, which offers superb habitat and the low possibility of wolf and human conflict. Scientists believe the return of the gray wolf to the peninsula will lead to cleaner water and healthier ungulate populations.

“Restoring critical predator-prey relationships will greatly enhance the state’s ecosystem and increase tourism dollars for local economies," added Mr. Graves. "A study from the University of Montana found that Yellowstone’s gateway communities have received more than $35 million a year from wolf-related tourism. Similar tourism related businesses might be possible in Washington State."

Washington state officials hope to finalize the plan next year.


Wolves came back to Washington state many years ago. There are already packs in the Methow and eastern recovery areas that regularly make the news:

At least one breeding pair was documented at North Cascades National Park as far back as 1990:

Wolves are also controversial here in Wisconsin. In northern Wisconsin's north woods region, this year has seen a big spike in wolves killing dogs used for bear hunting. The DNR here apparently sets money aside to compensate people whose dogs are killed by wolves, but this does not stop the chorus for more management.

I have been casually monitoring the management plans for wolf control in the wild. These plans all seem to have one theory in common. This theory is that a wolf, is a wolf, is a wolf. This seems to ignore everything we have learned about the social behavior of canines. Canines have a very complex cultural relationship with each other and the death of the alpha pair has an extremely detremental effect on the survival of the species in the wild. Added to this that some of wolf hunters usually hunt the strongest of these animals (the alphas), and the biology of the species is being effected. Don't get me wrong. I do believe that responsible hunting has its place. I just don't believe in trophy hunting. Add the eradication statements of some of these ardent wolf hunters, and there is a problem. Maybe the Licensing of wolf hunters should include species specific training and a psychological profiling. This is just a thought.
I also have a request of the National Parks Travelor. If you have information on the buffer zone at Denali, would you publish the information. I believe it was being re-evaluated in 2010. I also believe the biologist that was its primary defender was recently killed in a plane accident.

I just wanted to correct an inaccurate statement in your otherwise informative piece. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed management plan does not put "a cap" at 15 breeding pairs. It sets 15 breeding pairs as the number for delisting from the State Endangered Species Act. In fact, they clarify in the plan that the number is not a management cap for wolves. So the question should really be, "Do 15 breeding pairs constitute a recovered population in Washington?" I would conclude no, and recommend the department has more wolves before a delisting is proposed. But there is a subtle, but important distinction between a management cap and delisting trigger.

Recently, Wildlife and Fish and Game held a meeting in Colville Washington to try and develop a plan to manage 2 tiny packs, 100s of miles apart from each other, and invited the local people to work with them in Colville, WA.
Their thanks for this was to be insulted by an angry mob of ignorant, name calling, threatening so called "hunters", "ranchers" and other financially biased opponets. (these are not real hunters or sportsman, they are beer swilling drunks on ATVs, I have seen them shoot from the highways in the area) One man, Mr. McIrvin, has a nickel and dime cattle outfit, and although he has never seen a wolf in his life, used the so called evidence of 1 calf kill (likely already dead and had been eaten on a little bit by either a large dog, coyote or as Mr. McIrvin is hot to convince everyone: a wolf. Yep. There were ONE SET of tracks around the corpse. Because the feet were large, how convenient to play up the Big, Bad Wolf fear and pocket some cash from our generous government! I lived in the southwest and grew up in ranch country, and no REAL ranchers I ever knew in Colorado, Montana or New Mexico acted this hostile and childish toward wolves. In fact a cowboy I knew in his 80s, still working, rather admired them and knew as a rule they avoid people. This Mr. McIrvin from Laurier, WA, threatened everyone at Fish and Wildlife and all of us whom realise the Earth is not only designed for US alone, but we must learn to co-exist with the natural world and all the beautiful animals and species that make up our web of life. Mr. McIrvin said he hoped the wolves would tear up the people whom want them to be allowed life, and attack and kill their kids and grandkids! He also stated that anyone who did not agree with him was stupid. The article is in the "Local Stories" tab on the left column of The colville washington Nov 4 edition. Please all those who can, enlighten the paper by their deadline of Friday the 6th in your letters, to speak for the wolves, whom the Statesman Examiner, has clearly decided they are against by promoting and giving headlines to ignorant, selfish and rude people by splashing their nasty anti-wolf statements on the Front Page as if it were TRUE!

I would like to see the population recover to a point where "management" is unnecessary. Any aspect of the natural world that requires "management" means that it is not doing well and won't sustain itself in the long run.

There was a well-attended WA wolf plan meeting Nov. 5th on the Olympic Penisula:

As Jasime noted, Kurt's repeated use of the term "cap" is highly misleading. The WDFW preferred alternative sets a minimum of 15 successful breeding pairs for 3 consecutive years for delisting, corresponding to a minimum population of 75 to 150 wolves. It specifies no "cap", but WDFW verbally floated a "target" of 300 to 500 wolves in a recent public meeting.

This proposal is now open for public comment, and is also being submitted through Univ. of Washington for blind scientific review (just as a peer-reviewed science journal article would be). It appears there is no scientific consensus on the minimum sustainable wolf population, nor on the ecological effects of elk in Olympic NP, nor on desired target elk population. The plan may have to be deferred until scientific consensus develops on these key questions. (Without solid science, its doubtful the plan could survive the inevitable legal challenges... from both sides.)

WDFW developed this EIS under SEPA (State Environ. Prot. Act). State wildlife laws do not apply within National Parks. Wolves cannot be reintroduced to Olympic NP without the concurrance of the NPS, and that will require a completely separate NEPA EIS. USFWS is still developing science and policy regarding Northwest wolf population, declines to even comment on this WDFW wolf EIS, so is not ready to participate in such an NPS EIS. Eight sovereign tribes must also concur (Quinault Indian Nation and Makah are major landowners and wildlife managers; 6 other tribes also hold traditional elk hunting rights within Olympic NP and, based on past examples, each may separately demand years of funding to "study the issue" before approving).

So it appears to this observer that any action to reintroduce wolves into Olympic remains at least a decade away, likely longer.

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