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Are Pacific Northwest wolves distinct?

Wolves from western British Columbia have been living largely separate from inland Rocky Mountain wolves for many generations. Over time they gradually adapted to local climatic and habitat conditions, developing specialized behaviors, such as hunting and eating salmon, and forming distinct genetic profiles obvious in their DNA. These wolves now appeared to be spearheading recolonization of the wolf’s Pacific Northwest range in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and coastal mountains.

From the fall 2012 edition of the Conservation Northwest quarterly
by Dave Werntz, science and conservation director
2009 image taken of a Cascades wolf
2009 image taken of a Cascades wolf

As Ray Robertson eased his Jeep to a stop near the boot trail, he wasn’t sure what he’d find at the camera station. There were reports of wolves in the hills above the Methow River in western Okanogan County, but experts thought these were mostly misidentified coyotes or large dogs.

During his tenure as a volunteer with Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Program, a cooperative effort with state and federal researchers, Ray had seen many pictures of coyote, deer, snowshoe hare, and wild turkey but never a wolf. He looked over the fresh photos, and then sat down and looked again. What was that?   

The image taken at the camera station was clearly Canis—a wolf or coyote. Its broad head and snout didn’t resemble coyote, and its body was high on long legs. Yet, it didn’t look as big as the wolves in the Rockies, and its snout, ears, flanks, and legs were tinted a beautiful deep auburn. It looked like a wolf, but not exactly. Was it really? 

At first, the word from the Rockies was clear. The biologists who reviewed the photos uniformly agreed. It’s not a wolf—too small and wrong coloring. Probably a big coyote. 

Being a diligent scientist, Scott Fitkin of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife continued to gather input from experts including colleagues who study coastal wolves in British Colombia. It wasn’t long before he got a response. This wolf is very similar to coastal BC wolves. The researchers attached photos of coastal wolves showing their stature and reddish hues.

A match. Our wolf might have relatives on the British Columbia coast. 

The initial confusion should be no surprise. Wolves from western British Columbia have been living largely separate from inland Rocky Mountain wolves for many generations. Over time they gradually adapted to local climatic and habitat conditions, developing specialized behaviors, such as hunting and eating salmon, and forming distinct genetic profiles obvious in their DNA. These wolves now appeared to be spearheading recolonization of the wolf’s Pacific Northwest range in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and coastal mountains. 

In fact, these are the exact characteristics that Congress intended to preserve when it passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Taking the long view then, in 1973, unthinkable by today’s standards, Congress recognized that maintaining genetic, behavioral, and ecological diversity was essential to the conservation of America’s most imperiled wildlife and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to protect endangered species, including “distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife.”

The recovery of Pacific Northwest wolves remains fragile. 

While Washington State has nine packs, only two live in the Cascades (the Service considers the other seven packs to be Rocky Mountain wolves). The Lookout Pack in the Methow, where our first wolf was photographed, was decimated by poachers and has yet to rebound. The Teanaway Pack near Cle Elum continues to hold on. One collared wolf moved from the Rockies into the Oregon Cascades and traveled south into California before heading north again, but no packs have been confirmed south or west of Teanaway.

Federal ESA protection as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) would focus and coordinate conservation efforts across the region, bringing resources and research where state capabilities are thin, and increasing the pace of recovery and delisting. Equally important, it would allow for significant fines and punishment for convicted poachers—the primary threat to wolf recovery—that are far more severe than the state can seek. 

The Service is currently deciding whether to list wolves in the Pacific Northwest as a DPS under the Endangered Species Act. A recommendation on whether to keep or lift federal protections for wolves in this area is expected by the end of the year. Cascade wolves are different from Rockies wolves. We need a strategy that protects both.

 
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