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Distinct and unique

Northwest wolves meet the requirements to be judged a distinct population segment of endangered wolves.

From the fall 2012 edition of the Conservation Northwest quarterly
by Dave Werntz, science and conservation director
Teanaway wolf print
Teanaway wolf print
Sidebar to the feature story: Are Pacific Northwest wolves distinct?

Wolves are recolonizing many parts of the West. A distinct population segment of endangered wolves is a population with the following characteristics:

  1. discreteness or separation between the population and others
  2. significance, and
  3. at-risk status.

A population may be considered “discrete” if it is markedly separated from other populations because of physical, physiological, ecological, or behavioral factors. It may be “significant” if, among other factors, (a) its loss would create a big gap in the range, (b) it lives in a unique ecological setting, or (c) it has different genetic characteristics than other populations.

The current Pacific Northwest wolf population is discrete from other wolf populations in the Rockies and farther east.

The extensive arid and agricultural lands of the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau form a geographic habitat break between the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.

Wolves have crossed and will likely cross this area and will likely serve as a partial source of wolves recolonizing the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. But, as wolf packs establish, they will likely avoid denning in this broad expanse of unsuitable habitat. Significantly, loss of Pacific Northwest wolves constitutes a big gap in the range of gray wolves, which once extended from the Canadian border south into California.

The scale of Pacific Northwest wolf habitat is significant. There is more than 20 million acres of wolf habitat in the Cascades and coastal mountains and Sierra Nevada (roughly 15% of wolf habitat in the American West). The habitat is well connected, and capable of supporting more than 600 wolves.

The Pacific Northwest’s dense coniferous forests, abundant precipitation both as rain and snow, and mild temperatures provide a unique ecological setting for wolves. It also provides a distinct prey base for wolves made up of black-tailed deer, mule deer, Roosevelt elk, and salmon. 

Lastly, there is evidence indicating that wolves in the Pacific Northwest have distinct genetic characteristics.

Preliminary genetic analysis of the breeding pair from the Lookout and Teanaway packs in Washington’s Cascades show they are related to British Columbia’s coastal wolves, who exhibit strong genetic differentiation from other wolves. It is likely that wolves from the British Columbia coast will continue to be a source of wolves moving into the Cascades and south.

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