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Food sources appear to be to wolves' liking

By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald

The wolf, originally a member of the Teanaway pack, had been ear-tagged two years earlier, when “it had been captured but was too young to collar,” said Jay Kehne of Conservation Northwest, which has worked alongside state officials to monitor the state’s burgeoning wolf population. “When it was captured, it was a scrawny, half-dead wolf. And two years later, it was this beautiful adult.”.... And those wolves will flourish wherever there’s a consistent prey base, such as that found in the wooded canyons between Wenatchee and Ellensburg. “There’s an awfully good food supply in that area, with the deer and elk higher up,” said Kehne, the Conservation Northwest outreach coordinator who is sits on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Food sources appear to be to wolves' liking

A wolf, likely of the Wenatchee pack, looks over the remains of an elk on this image caught by a trail camera, while another wolf stands in the background. (Photo courtesy of Hurd's Guide Service)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Friday’s announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that gray wolves no longer need federal protection under the Endangered Species Act would probably get no argument from residents of the canyons south of Wenatchee, home to the newest of Washington’s 12 wolf packs.

Estimates of the state’s wolf population range from the low 50s up to 100 or more, mostly in the northeast corner of the state. Three packs, though — the Lookout (in the Methow Valley, near Twisp), the Teanaway (northwest of Ellensburg) and the Wenatchee — have taken up residence on the eastern slopes of the Cascades.

The prey base and habitat must be to their likings, based on a healthy, seemingly well-fed wolf photographed in the Entiat Valley earlier this spring.

The wolf, originally a member of the Teanaway pack, had been ear-tagged two years earlier, when “it had been captured but was too young to collar,” said Jay Kehne of Conservation Northwest, which has worked alongside state officials to monitor the state’s burgeoning wolf population.

“When it was captured, it was a scrawny, half-dead wolf. And two years later, it was this beautiful adult.”

The Wenatchee Pack’s two confirmed members have found no shortage of food sources and, although there have been no reported sightings of the wolves in several weeks, no one doubts their presence.

“They’re still around,” cattle rancher Ross Hurd said late last week. “We find tracks; we find (deer and elk) kills.”

Two grisly finds on his Pitcher Canyon property this spring have Hurd wary.

One was an elk that drowned in a pond within easy view of Hurd’s living-room picture window, with the pond’s banks riddled with tracks of the wolves that apparently chased it there.

The other was the body of a dead cow that had been feasted upon by wolves. Although state wildlife officials determined the cow had not died from a wolf attack — or an attack by any predator, in fact — two wolves were watching from a distance in late March as those state biologists assessed the carcass.

“(The biologists) were telling us we don’t even believe the wolves were here when the cow died,” Hurd said, “and I looked right over their shoulder and I said, ‘This might not be a wolf, but there’s this really big dog-like animal right up there looking down at us.”

A second wolf was watching from nearby on the same ridgetop, Hurd said, noting that neither seemed remotely skittish about the humans’ presence.

“Here there were nine people, four or five vehicles, nobody’s being really quiet and (the wolves) are just waiting for us to get out of their way so they could get back to eating on the cow.

“And that wolf, it’s not scared at all.”

Hurd hasn’t seen the wolves howling in recent weeks or heard them howling, but he said several of his neighbors up Pitcher and Squilchuck canyons south of Wenatchee have heard howling. At least one, he said, has heard “signs of what sounds like younger wolves, like a yearling.”

State wildlife biologist Scott Becker isn’t convinced all of the howling heard by the Wenatchee canyon residents is actually that of wolves.

“I do know there’s a lot of coyotes in that country, too,” said Becker, one of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s designated wolf experts. “We know there’s a couple of wolves running around up there, and because of that, every coyote yapping out there becomes a wolf howl.”

Biologists don’t yet know whether the two Wenatchee Pack members are, in fact, a mating pair; it could simply be two young wolves split off from another pack that had simply outgrown its prey base.

Nor do officials know the pack affiliation of a yearling female wolf that was hit and killed April 23 by a motorist on Blewett Pass. The Teanaway Pack would seem to be the most logical answer, but the location isn’t all that far from the Wenatchee Pack’s favorite haunts.

And even if it were, wolves have been known to travel great distances.

One collared female wolf from the Teanaway Pack last spring traveled from the hills of western Kittitas County all the way north to the west side of Lake Chelan, then walked the length of the lake to the east end, circumnavigated the town of Chelan and went up into the Sawtooth Wilderness, crossed the Methow Valley — home of the Lookout Pack — and continued all the way up into Canada. She was shot and killed in the pigsty of a farm near Kootenay, in eastern British Columbia about 100 miles north of Sandpoint, Idaho.

Although, as announced last Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to begin the process of delisting gray wolves from federal protection, those wolves will remain state-protected in Washington until the state’s wolf-management goals are met.

Those goals include a minimum of 15 breeding pairs present in the state for at least three years, with at least four pairs each in Eastern Washington, the northern Cascades and the southern Cascades/Northwest coastal area. By the time those regional standards are met, considering the difficulty in spotting, verifying and delineating different packs, the state’s actual wolf population could be as high as 300 wolves.

And those wolves will flourish wherever there’s a consistent prey base, such as that found in the wooded canyons between Wenatchee and Ellensburg. “There’s an awfully good food supply in that area, with the deer and elk higher up,” said Kehne, the Conservation Northwest outreach coordinator who is sits on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Hurd, the Wenatchee rancher, doesn’t expect his neighbors to be rid of wolves anytime in the near future.

“Wolves are like wild dogs. They’re not scared of anything,” he said. “Nothing’s ever chased them, so they’re going to go wherever they want to go.

“To me, if you’re ever going to have perfect wolf habitat, it’s going to be a place that’s really cool in the summer, where the elk hang out, where the deer hang out, where the cougars hang out.

“That’s where the wolves will be.”

Hurd, of course, was describing the very landscape he sees outside his picture window.

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