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The Daily Howler (11-5-12): WA May Have 100 Wolves Edition

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By Andy Walgamott
Northwest Sportsman

"...in the end the most pragmatic wolf group realized the Wedge wolves weren't model citizens for the state's twin goals of recovery and social tolerance - the latter being the real key in this whole deal since Washington is never going to be some wolf nirvana like Yellowstone - and so supported the killing." - Editor's Note, Northwest Sportsman's Magazine, Nov. 2012

The Daily Howler (11-5-12): WA May Have 100 Wolves Edition

Oregon's wolf known as OR16, captured by USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services staff near Elgin. (ODFW)

1) Despite the removal of a pack this past August and September, 100 wolves may be roaming Washington, a high-ranking state wolf manager reassured a Seattle audience last Thursday night.

It was a guestimate and the Department of Fish & Wildlife won't have a final official figure coming out of this breeding season until it completes aerial surveys at the end of December, but it's also another sign that the state's population is quickly building -- maybe faster than anyone imagined.

"If Washington is like the northern Rocky Mountains, and we believe it is, we're on a path of rapid wolf expansion over the next few years," Donny Martorello, the agency's carnivore section lead, told about 100 to 150 people who attended a film preview and panel discussion on the state's wolves in a lecture room at the University of Washington's Kane Hall.

At the end of 2011, there was a confirmed minimum population of 27.

(The reported wolf count on a popular Evergreen State hunting forum has been consistently higher than either figure.)

Greeted with an audible "oh" when introduced as one of the guys in charge of managing Canis lupus in Washington, Martorello briefed attendees of the event, cosponsored by the Woodland Park Zoo, the Burke Museum and Conservation Northwest, on where Washington's wolves are at post-Wedge Pack:

There are now eight confirmed packs, three more than at the beginning of the year;

WDFW continues to suspect there are also packs in the Hozomeen area of the North Cascades, Ruby Creek and Boulder Creek areas of Northeast Washington, and the Blue Mountains;

Collar data indicates Oregon's Wenaha Pack spent the last two months in Washington;

The Colville Confederated Tribes believe they have a third pack on their reservation;

The Huckleberry Pack on and north of the Spokane Indian Reservation continues to "outwit" WDFW's attempts to capture and radio collar members;

While the state believes the entire livestock-depredating Wedge Pack of northern Stevens County was taken out, there have since been "numerous sightings" of wolves just to the west, south and east of there as well.

Martorello later explained that his estimate comes from the likelihood that 12 packs are here, and that, on average, each has eight members, for 96 wolves.

It's certainly possible that this year's known breeding packs -- the Huckleberrys, Smackouts, Teanaways, Diamonds and one of the Colville Reservation packs -- have eight or more wolves apiece, though others like Lookout are only known to have two and the Salmo Pack may only have a handful. But then there are hard-to-count dispersers, roughly 10 percent of any population.

He told the crowd that he thinks Washington will also "far exceed" minimum recovery goals -- 15 successful breeding pairs over three straight years in certain numbers across the state, or 18 in any one year, again in certain numbers.

2) While Martorello said that wolves are recolonizing from east to west across the state, one point of the snippets from the evening's film, the BBC's Land of the Lost Wolves, which Conservation Northwest was heavily involved in, is to argue that wolves are also moving north to south, from coastal British Columbia down into the Cascades.

CNW is part of a campaign to nudge the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service into declaring wolves such as the Lookout and Teanaway Packs of Okanogan and Kittitas Counties a distinct population segment, separate from those in Northeast Washington and the northern Rockies.

Wolves on Canada's western coast are said to "have been living largely separate ... for many generations ... gradually [adapting] to local climactic and habitat conditions ... (and) now [appear] to be [spearheading] recolonization ... in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and coastal mountains," according to literature available at the event from the Bellingham-based organization.

The coastal kind of gray wolf is said to be slightly smaller, wears a red coat and has evolved to nibble salmon.

Somewhat ironically, the pitch is similar to anti-wolfers' claims that quiet, harmless loners roamed Idaho and Wyoming before those "giant Canadian gray wolves" were reintroduced by USFWS in the mid-1990s.

The problem with it is that not only did the Lookout alphas share DNA with coastal wolves, they also have inland Canadian wolf traits, preliminary testing showed, according to WDFW's final wolf management plan.

Young dispersing wolves are like sparks from a campfire, it has been said. As OR7 has shown, these long-legged animals have no problem whatsoever covering hundreds -- even thousands --- of miles in any direction as they search for mates and vacant habitats, like in, say, Plumas County, California or western Colorado.

And if you want to bring in hair color, well, the Wedge alpha male did have a few reddish highlights too, KING 5 video shows.

Officially, WDFW doesn't like the idea -- "this is one species" says a spokeswoman -- and earlier this year it sent a letter to Dan Ashe, USFWS chief in Washington D.C., to try and fend off a possible determination:

Given the observed rate of wolf colonization and the extensive movements of wolves in Washington, we are confident that wolves from the NRM DPS (and their descendents) will continue to colonize Washington at a significantly higher rate compared to source animals that might come from southern British Columbia. As a result of this biological information, the Department does not support the creation of a new DPS that would include the western two-thirds of Washington. Wolves in any part of our state will not be “discrete” from or represent a “significant” population of wolves that differs from those in the NRM DPS; therefore we do not believe that they would meet the Service’s DPS policy standards.

After all the rancor over wolves in the Rockies as well as new understandings gained over the past two decades, it's unclear whether the Service will list them for special protections. A decision of some sort on the status of wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington and Oregon is expected at the end of the year.

3) At some point soon after that, state Senator Kevin Ranker will take WDFW to task for its decision to shoot seven members of the Wedge Pack, six in a brutally efficient half-week aerial campaign. A pup that was trapped and released also died.

"I'm going to be holding a hearing on this and really diving into the facts. What did happen and what didn't happen. What did the rancher do? What did the rancher do not do to try and preempt this situation," the Orcas Island Democrat and chairman of the Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters committee told KING 5's wolf reporter, Gary Chittim, in a report that aired last week.

Ranker doesn't believe enough nonlethal measures were taken to prevent the removal of the Wedge wolves.

WDFW outlined the steps it was taking through the summer online and afterwards during an October 5 Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting. This blog, though perhaps not read by the senator, also spent a vast amount of time reporting on goings on there.

In the future, the agency has said it wants to begin lethal removals from troublesome packs earlier, before the animals' "search image" for prey switches from deer, elk and moose to calves and cows.

It is also working on more nonlethal measures to use in the first place, recently spending $40,000 on "miles" of fladry, Martorello reported.

And last Friday, Director Phil Anderson, Wildlife Program chief Nate Pamplin, statewide wolf policy lead Steve Pozzanghera, and Game Division manager Dave Ware were in Montana meeting with operators of the oft-touted Blackfoot Challenge to see out how it works.

Ware explained that the cooperative was set up in the 1970s and originally dealt with grizzlies, but this part of Northwest Montana was also one of the areas that saw early wolf recolonization in the latter 1980s.

It has a board comprised of not only ranchers, but public agencies.

Asked if it could work in Washington, Ware said, "Sure," and pointed to concepts like range riders and carcass collectors -- twice a week, someone comes around and hauls off ranchers' dead stock, helping to reduce the odds of attracting carnivores to their boneyards.

The key, WDFW honchos were told, is building trust with livestock producers.

4) What happened in the Wedge contrasts sharply in some ways with what has happened further south in Stevens County. Extraordinary effort continues to be made in the Smackout Pack's range to keep those wolves out of livestock. Snippets from recent state Wildlife Program newsletters say:

(Oct. 22) Technician Baker and Biologist Shepherd observed and watched a Smackout pack pup attempt to cross the paved road for an hour near Spirit Junction and attempted to haze it away from a ranch as several residents were concerned about the howling and proximity of wolves. Technician Baker and Biologist Shepherd replaced the battery on a Remotely Activated Guard unit on a ranch near Rocky Creek and discussed that option with another ranch operator in the area as well as a Livestock Damage Prevention Contract. Biologist Shepherd spent Saturday attempting to haze the Smackout pack on the Olson Ranch and discussing wolf issues and range riding with ranchers Jeff and John Dawson. Biologist Shepherd de-scrambled, mapped, and texted Smackout wolf locations to range rider Leisa Hill everyday of the week.

(Oct. 15) Biologist Shepherd and Rancher Jeff Dawson searched a wolf location cluster for cattle depredation evidence in Smackout Meadows ... Biologist Shepherd de-scrambled, mapped, and texted Smackout wolf locations to range rider Leisa Hill everyday of the week

So far there have been no confirmed depredations in the Smackout territory, though wolves did feed on a yearling/steer earlier in October, as did coyotes and ravens.

WDFW and Conservation Northwest are splitting the cost of that range rider, and Martorello told the audience that he hoped to offer the program to more livestock producers next year.

Asked how that and other wolf management was being paid for by the agency, he said, "It's not being paid by hunter dollars or other sources that are hunter dollars."

Rather, it's coming from other areas of the state budget and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. We've reported on that here and here.

5) One thing is clear: In the years ahead, the agency will need more money for that, depredation compensations, and a plan to pay ranchers for "skinny cows." A proposal to reimburse producers who can prove wolves have chased pounds off their stock is before the Fish & Wildlife Commission. The state may also compensate ranchers who suffer larger than usual calf losses in areas of wolf activity. If it all comes to fruition, it would be more than other wolf states have offered.

"We want to be as proactive as we can. Working with producers is important to us," said Ware.

5.5) While The Daily Howler has basically taken the last month off since filing his last dispatch -- dear God, has it been wonderful -- Ware reports using the calm to prepare for what may, or may not, be a busy 2013.

6) Oregon wolf managers Friday announced that a black wolf was captured and radio collared in northern Union County on Nov. 1.

"It is unknown at this time if the wolf is part of any of the three known nearby packs (Wenaha, Walla Walla and Umatilla River) or if it represents new wolf activity. Biologists expect that the new GPS collar will soon provide that answer," ODFW posted.

The male yearling weighed 85 pounds.

7) If the removal of the Wedge Park marked a "failure" the whole way 'round, as Martorello said Thursday, one of the failures of The Daily Howler is that he has not published a critique of Land of the Lost Wolves, in some ways an educational film -- TDH gained intel and better understanding -- and in other areas just an eye-roller for those who've been reporting the situation closely.

For instance: hopes that the Lookout's original and fairly visible alpha female will miraculously be found in February 2011 after it and its VHF collar disappeared abruptly in May 2010 and was considered dead by state and federal biologists; and the question about whether the Teanaway female had pups which had basically already been confirmed when WDFW captured and collared the lactating female and put out a press release.

And never mind the part about the Scottish wildlife photographer stripping down to his underwear on the way over to Ross Lake by sled dog from Mazama or something.

But I am not a BBC producer trying to lure in and keep a certain audience at rapt attention over two hours.

(After getting a whiff that the project was ongoing, we filed this long-ass story on the situation in the Methow Valley.)

The film also featured the obligatory appearances by the rabidly anti-wolf, and talk of shooting, shoveling and shutting up. It attempted to connect with an Idaho hunter whose wolf-hunting tips appeared in Northwest Sportsman.

Still, it provided the audience at the University of Washington with apparent warm feelings, laughs -- and, hopefully, a sense that wolves have to work for all parties in Washington, not just the wolf.

8] Martorello said that some of the most important elements of management is educating and communicating with hunters and ranchers.

Wolf effects on big game are an unknown for us, he said, and we've heard disturbing stories come out of the Rockies, some true, some not.

Asked whether the science was clear whether wolf numbers influenced prey numbers, the discussion panel couldn't say it was black or white.

Martorello said it was complex. There are examples where adding the big dogs to the landscape has impacted big game herds, and others where it hasn't, he said. He did add that having a fuller suite of carnivores can lead to depressed populations.

He also pointed out that ranchers can't help but note that just a few decades ago the same government that's now bringing wolves back was the one eradicating them.

It's our groups' tolerance that will determine wolves' fate in Washington, he said -- the critics will become the stewards, he said.

Jasmine Minbashian of Conservation Northwest told the crowd that a middle ground won't be found with every rancher, but that going to their spreads, riding with and listening to them was one key.

9) That's not exactly the behavior that less pragmatic wolf lovers have demonstrated in Washington. The Daily Howler overheard that the McIrvins were getting as many as 150 nasty calls a day during the Wedge Pack removal.

At the end of the evening, Martorello encouraged those who haven't heard the howl of Washington's wolves to go out in May to pack locations and bay.

He was speaking to what probably could be considered a pro-wolf audience, but the same suggestion could be extended to sportsmen who missed the event.

Go out to the Blues, Nile, Little Naches, Tripod or elsewhere where you think you saw or heard wolves, or found tracks or poop during this year's hunting, hiking, fishing, backpacking, berrying and mushrooming seasons, and howl.

And then report any responses online.

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