Wolves finding a home in north-central Washington?
A Wenatchee World article by K.C. Mehaffey about recent wolf sighting near the Methow Valley.
This photo was taken with a remote camera on April 26 in the Methow Valley. (Photo courtesy of Bill White)
TWISP - A state biologist said Monday that he believes one or more packs of gray wolves are living in the Methow Valley, and if confirmed, it could be the first resident population of the endangered species in Washington state since before 1930.
"There's certainly a distinct possibility that we actually have some wolves here, and they may be reproducing," said Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Winthrop. Packers have made numerous reports of wolves in the high country in the past couple of years, and there have been increasing reports by residents in lower elevations, he said.
Fitkin said his agency is reviewing two photographs and hopes to gather hair samples or feces to confirm through genetic analysis that the animals seen in areas between the Twisp River and Libby Creek south of Carlton are gray wolves.
He said the brown color of the wolves captured on film has biologists wondering if these animals might be hybrids — wolves that have bred with either dogs or coyotes. Hybrid wolves are not protected and may even be considered detrimental to the eventual repopulation of wolves, he said.
But biologists are learning that some gray wolves in British Columbia also have a similar tawny-brown color mixed in with their black, gray and white fur, he added.
Wolves are about four times as large as coyotes, with a male generally weighing 100 pounds or more. They're generally more robust-looking, "like a coyote that's been pumping up," Fitkin said, and notably long-legged with large paws. Coyotes have a more delicate snout and ears that look larger in relationship to their head, he said. But the two can breed and have offspring that are fertile, he said.
Fitkin said the presence of gray wolves in northeastern Washington has been confirmed through photographs, and there have also been reports which he believes are still unconfirmed of multiple wolves living in that area of the state, but those wolves would not be endangered. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the gray wolf from the endangered list in Washington state east of Highway 97 because recovered populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are expected to repopulate that area of the state. They are still considered endangered in North Central Washington, including Twisp.
By 1930, wolves were completely killed off in Washington state, through shooting, trapping, poisoning and government bounties, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. A fact sheet put out by the state agency says no breeding pairs or packs of wild wolves are known to be living in Washington.
Fitkin said there have been reliable wolf sightings in the Methow dating to the early 1990s, but only sporadic, unconfirmed reports of wolf packs.
"What's changed recently is that we've had repeated observations of multiple animals in the greater Twisp River/Chelan Sawtooth and Libby Creek areas," he said, adding, "My suspicion is, based on the sighting history, its development is very similar to how recolonization in the Rockies occurred. This is looking like we very well may have some wolves on the landscape."
Max Judd of Carlton said he sat in his house just off Highway 153 and watched two pairs of what he believes were wolves on the hillside across the Methow River one day last month.
"What called me to look on the hill was a coyote yipping, and he acted like he was frantic about something, and he kept it up and kept it up," Judd said. He said he got out his binoculars and watched the pair, who were separated by about a quarter of a mile.
"They're massive, and they were really in good shape. These were identical in coloration. They even had the same little black spot on their tail. You couldn't have told them apart," he recalled.
Judd said he's lived in the same house for about 50 years and has seen wolverines, moose, lynx and even bighorn sheep, but never a wolf. "They didn't bother nothing. It was quite a surprise to see. We watched them for about an hour," he said.
Bill White, a Twisp cattleman and cougar tracker, is also convinced that wolves are living in the Methow.
White said he saw tracks this winter as large as those left by a cougar, only more oval in shape, with distinct toenail marks left in the snow.
He said his son has seen one pack with nine wolves and another with four.
He said state and federal officials questioned the sightings, so he set up a remote camera and caught them on film. He said he also gathered hair at one location. One of the females captured on film shows clearly visible protruding nipples, indicating she's nursing pups, he said.
White said he's not happy about the sightings. After what the northern spotted owl did to the logging industry, he worries that gray wolves will only create more restrictions on public land.
"Are they going to rope it off and say no more logging or hunting or snowmobiling?" he asked.
White said he thinks one pack of wolves killed one of his hunting dogs that didn't come back after a hunt this winter. "Everybody's not supportive" of repopulating the area with wolves, he said, adding, "The cattleman's the only one that's going to make a sacrifice."
Fitkin said there's no question that wolves will kill pets and even livestock, particularly if they can't find enough of their usual prey, which would be deer in the Methow Valley.
He suggested that people hiking in areas where wolves may have been spotted should keep dogs on a leash. But generally speaking,
North American wolves are not a threat to humans, he added. "There have been very, very few wild wolf attacks," he said.
Fitkin said having endangered gray wolves in the Methow Valley wouldn't create the kind of land management restrictions that northern spotted owls caused.
"If we knew the location of a natal den, we might draw a mile circle buffer around it in the late spring and early summer to try to minimize contact," he said. But otherwise, he sees few land use restrictions, because the animals' habitat needs are not specific. "As long as they have an adequate prey base, which are deer, and don't get killed," recovery should take care of itself, he said.