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Washington's wolves

Wolves have returned home on their own to Washington, after more than 70 years' absence. A state wolf recovery plan and funding for conflict prevention tools help them recover.

Lookout wolf pups, 2008. Captured on Conservation Northwest remote camera
Lookout wolf pups, 2008. Captured on Conservation Northwest remote camera

Canis lupus

Conservation Northwest believes Washington can be the state where natural wolf recovery, conservation and management works in the long run; for people, wolves and all the Northwest’s wildlife

But to achieve this goal it will take hard work, respect and compromise from stakeholders on all sides.

Get the latest on our Range Rider Pilot Program in this June 2015 News Update!

More on Washington's Wolves

Early settlers described gray wolves as common to Washington and it''s believed that one or more wolf packs may have made their homes in every major river valley in the Pacific Northwest down to the shores of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. 

Able to travel extreme distances, adapt to varied habitat conditions and occupy large ranges, wolves once thrived throughout Washington's Cascades, Kettle River Range, Selkirk and Blue Mountains, as well as the ancient forests, swamps and coastlines of the Puget Sound Basin, Olympic Peninsula and Willapa Hills, and event the deserts, sagebrush steppes and coulees of the Columbia Basin and Palouse regions. 

By the early 1900s, after years of trapping and poisoning campaigns and government-sponsored bounties, wolves were eradicated from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The last confirmed Washington wolves were killed in the rainforest valleys of the western Olympia Peninsula in the 1930s. Wolf sightings were still occasionally reported from far northeast Washington's Selkirk Mountains and from near the Canadian border around Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park. 

To the east, small populations of gray wolves persisted through the 20th century in northwest Montana's Upper Flathead Valley and in the northern Great Lakes region.

Welcome home, Washington's wolves

That changed in the 1990s and early 2000s as wolves started coming back naturally to Washington from "coastal" gray wolf populations in British Columbia and "continental" gray wolf populations in Idaho and western Montana. Howling, scat and wolf tracks were first documented near the Canadian Border at the north end of Ross Lake in the late 1990s, and later confirmed as the transboundary Hozomeen Pack which dens in British Columbia.

2008 photo of a Lookout Pack wolf. Photo: CNW
2008 photo of a Lookout Pack wolf. Photo: CNW

The early 2000s saw scattered reports of wolves in the Pasayten Wilderness and other areas north of the Methow Valley, and Washington's first pack in over 70 years, the Lookout Pack, was later confirmed in the mountains west of Twisp. In 2008, cameras operated by a Conservation Northwest Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Program volunteer captured the first images of the Lookout Pack pups, the first Washington wolf pups documented in nearly a century. In 2009, the Diamond wolf pack was also confirmed in the upper Pend Oreille valley near the Idaho border.

After 2010, Washington's recolonizing wolves went on to occupy territory throughout northeast Washington, including the Columbia Highlands, Kettle Range and Selkirk Mountains. Wolves from northeast Oregon and western Idaho also began to regain territory on the Washington side of the Blue and Wallowa Mountains in our state's southeast corner, as well parts of as the nearby canyon country around the Snake, Tucannon and Grande Ronde Rivers. 

In the Cascades, descendants of the Lookout Pack and other "coastal" wolves coming down from British Columbia expanded south, establishing the Teanaway Pack in the valleys north of Cle Elum and the elusive Wenatchee Pack in the Colockum steppes south of Wenatchee and north of Ellensburg. Though another pack has not yet been confirmed in the area between the Okanogan and Methow valleys, wolves have been documented in the Pasayten Wilderness and in the Loup Loup Pass area.

In early 2015, a black-colored wolf was hit by a car and killed on Interstate 90 in North Bend. The Hozomeen Pack wolves had previously been confirmed west of the Cascade Crest, however the death of this "I-90 wolf" was a historic (and tragic) event as it was the first wolf confirmed back in central Western Washington. Around the same time, a Conservation Northwest Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project camera documented a gray wolf in the Chiwaukum Mountains between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth, likely an individual moving through the area. Also in 2015, unconfirmed photos and reports of wolves came from the Taneum, Naches, Bumping Lake and Wenas areas. It's quite possible that a new pack will be confirmed in Yakima County in 2016.

The expansion of wolves in Washington's Cascades has been slow compared to their return to northeast and southeast Washington, likely due in part to poaching and habitat fragmentation. However, it's likely that wolves from both the "coastal" and "continental" source populations are now mixing, which may speed up the species recolonization of the South Cascades, Western Washington and with time, even the Olympic Peninsula. 

Washington's wolf recovery today

As of the spring of 2015, the Washington State Department of Wildlife reports there are a minimum of 68 wolves in Washington, with 16 wolf packs and at least five successful breeding pairs in 2014. Because surveying wolf numbers is a very tricky process, the actual number of wolves in our state is most likely higher, with some unofficial estimates putting the number at around 100 animals.

Washington's confirmed wolf packs in March 2015. Photo: WDFW
Washington's confirmed wolf packs in March 2015. Photo: WDFW
However, the future of Washington's wolves is not yet assured, and their recovery is still precarious. 

Protection status

Gray wolves are currently listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of Washington state (roughly west of Highway 97 and the north-south Columbia River), which includes the Lookout, Teanaway and Wenatchee Packs in the North Cascades. Though state endangered species protections remain statewide, wolves have been federally delisted in the eastern third of Washington state.

In areas of Washington where they are not listed as federally endangered, ranchers, farmers and other citizens are allowed to take lethal action against wolves "caught in the act" of attacking livestock, domestic animals, pets or property. Compensation funds are available statewide for ranchers, farmers and livestock operators who have had confirmed losses to wolves and other predators (Depredation Q & A). Proven non-lethal measures are also available help prevent depredations.

Management of the species is governed by the state's Wolf Conservation & Management Plan (Wolf Plan) until the species hits recovery objectives for breeding packs distributed across the state's three designated recovery areas. Conservation Northwest was instrumental in the creation of the Wolf Plan, and we strongly believe it's the best wolf recovery plan in the nation. 

What we are doing

Conservation Northwest works to safeguard the recovery and science-based conservation of Washington's wolves. We also seek to help ranchers, farmers and hunters adjust to the return of wolves in our region, promoting social tolerance for this important native species. More on what we do for wolves

More on wolves

  • Wolves are naturally returning to Washington on their own from wolf populations in British Columbia, Idaho and western Montana. These wolves are not a new "Canadian" subspecies and are genetically the same as wolves that once thrived in the Pacific Northwest
  • Canis lupus, the gray wolf, is the largest of the canines, two to three times the size of a coyote.
  • Wolves once lived around the state, including the Olympic Peninsula, where their loss has led to big changes in the courses of rivers, vegetation, and other wildlife populations, notably Roosevelt elk.
  • Wolves have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell. They hunt and socialize in family groups known as packs.
  • Some of the wolves documented in the Cascades have had their DNA traced to wolves in coastal British Columbia. They have also been documented eating salmon!
  • Sprawl and development spells loss of habitat for wolves and their prey; but overall, the greatest threat to wolves is people's fear and misunderstanding about them.
  • More than 75% of Washington residents queried in a 2008 wildlife poll supported recovery of Washington's wolves
  • Wolves are very wary of humans and do not pose a significant risk to human safety. In the last century in North America, there have only ever been two confirmed fatal attacks on humans by wolves.
  • As a top carnivore, the gray wolves, along with other predators such as the bears and cougars, control prey populations so that a landscape may support a healthy ecosystem.
  • Wolves play a vital role in maintaining the health of big game by culling sick animals and promoting stable ungulate populations. Biologists tell us that herds of big game - from elk to deer - are healthier with wolves in the habitat than without.
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