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Return of the wolf

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Then came the 2008 discovery of wolves in the Washington Cascades by Conservation Northwest cameras: "Are you ready? Are you sitting down?" George's enthusiasm exploded as soon as I picked up the phone. "Our wildlife cameras have captured photos of what might be some sort of large canid. And that's not all, there are six pups!"

written by Jasmine Minbashian, special projects director, for the 2008 CNW Quarterly newsletter

Welcome back, old friend

Wolves are returning to Washington's Cascades
Wolves are returning to Washington's Cascades

Shortly after Conservation Northwest captured evidence of possible wolf pups on one of its remote wildlife cameras in the North Cascades, Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, tracked down two of the “suspected” wolf adults and fit them with radio collars.

Samples of their DNA were sent to a specialized canid lab in California, where new techniques allow geneticists to test for dog markers and trace the geography of lineage.

See Washington's wolves in a new film.

Return of wolves has a long history

Wolves have actually lived in Washington for a long time. They first migrated into Washington from the southern Great Plains about 10,000 years ago when the last ice sheets retreated. Their long history in these mountains means that they have been an important part of the region’s natural and cultural heritage. 

The call I received that summer day in 2008 I'll never forget. “Are you ready? Are you sitting down?” Conservation Northwest's George Wooten’s enthusiasm exploded as soon as I picked up the phone. “Our wildlife cameras have captured photos of what might be some sort of large canid. And that’s not all, there are six pups!”

Researchers Jack Laufer and Peter Jenkins have described the coexistence of wolves and Cascades-area tribes, such as the Skagit and Skykomish prior to white settlement, as being relatively harmonious, yet varied. The Quinault, Quileute, and Makah tribes of the Olympic Peninsula gave wolves a prominent role in numerous creation stories and ceremonies. At Ozette, an ancient Makah village, the handle of a sword carved with two wolf heads and a wolf petroglyph were among the artifacts unearthed, dating back over 500 years. The Sanpoil and Nespelem (now part of the Colville Confederated Tribes) believed the wolf to be among the most powerful and dangerous of guardian spirits.

Almost gone - wolves
Almost gone - wolves

Reports from early settlers and explorers say that wolves were “exceedingly numerous” and were found in nearly every major river drainage in Washington. But extensive trapping of wolves for their pelts began with the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company in the American Northwest in 1821. The fur-trading company and its hired guns, known as “wolfers,” used strychnine to poison wolves at its early Washington farming operations and set high prices on wolf skins to encourage killing by Indians.

Trapping and shooting were also common killing techniques. According to their records, a total of 14,810 wolf pelts were traded from 1821 to 1859, at four locations in Washington. By 1939, the US Forest Service estimated that only about ten wolves in total survived on all national forest lands in the state.

Over the last few decades, there have been verified sightings of individual wolves in the mountains of Washington.  There have even been a few documented cases of adults and pups howling, mostly in and around North Cascades National Park, but never had there been a way to confirm that these were, in fact, wild wolves, and not illegally introduced wolf-dog hybrids. Until now.

On July 24, 2008, the lab results from the collared wolves were returned to Olympia with fascinating results: These were indeed pure wild wolves. They had migrated from British Columbia or central Alberta and started a new pack of their own in Washington’s North Cascades, now dubbed “the Lookout Pack.”

First seen: Lookout wolf pups 2008
First seen: Lookout wolf pups 2008

Have legs, will travel

I recently spent three glorious days hiking in the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness above Lake Chelan. After climbing an unnamed 8,500 ft peak, I felt incredibly small and incredibly tired. Looking north from the summit, I could see the snow-capped mountains of British Columbia on the horizon. They looked so vast, so distant, and so rugged that I wondered how in the world could a wolf make it from there to here?

Learn more about wolf recovery.

Wolves are built for travel. They are designed to be constantly moving.  With long, elegant legs, they trot on their toes, giving them a fluid gait that allows them to roam an average of 30 miles a day. When they want to, they can move hundreds of miles in several days.

Another land mammal with such range is the surly and solitary wolverine. An adult wolverine can cover 500 square miles in search of insects, berries, small animals, birds, and carrion. A wolverine made headlines this spring when it was photographed in the eastern Sierra Mountains of California, where it was thought to be extinct for decades. Researchers know that the animal traveled from the Northern Rockies to get there.

Wolves’ home ranges or territories vary, but usually average about 140 to 400 square miles. Territory size is often smaller when prey is common and other packs live nearby. Wolves are very social animals and mostly stick with their families, but once in awhile—just like people—they will break away from the pack and explore new territory, searching for a fresh start. 

As habitat generalists, wolves don’t need much to survive. Biologist Scott Fitkin explains, “For wolves to do well, they really only need two things: an adequate ungulate prey base and for us not to kill them.” 

But increasingly that second part is becoming more difficult.

Connected movement: Running the gauntlet

Remember the old video game Frogger? Your joystick moves a little frog character across a series of busy highways and your challenge is to not get squashed. Now, add in hunters that can shoot you on sight—oh, and no rest stops. The game suddenly gets a lot harder.

That’s what wolves and other wide-ranging animals like grizzlies, wolverines, and lynx are facing today. Development and population growth are expanding at an aggressive clip. The latest census estimates show that Washington’s human population has grown by 10 percent in the last eight years. As people expand into undeveloped areas, the options narrow for these animals to travel safely across the landscape. The more roads and highways and urbanized landscapes they must cross, the greater the chance that they will be killed by a fast moving metal object: a car or a bullet.

Bill Gaines, a US Forest Service biologist, has teamed up with other scientists to conduct large landscape analyses on the least risky routes wide-ranging animals could use to move into and around Washington. He is studying the concept of “wildlife connectivity.” He says it’s just a fancy term for understanding how animals move across a landscape.

Wolf & deer habitat Cascades
Wolf & deer habitat Cascades

Gaines believes there are two major routes the Lookout wolves may have used to access habitat in Washington’s North Cascades. The most likely is the north-south connection from the southern British Columbia’s Cascades; the second, an east-west route through the Kootenays of southeastern BC, into northeast Washington’s Kettle and Selkirk Ranges, and over the Okanogan Valley. “Either way,” Gaines adds, “they’ve got to run a gauntlet through British Columbia. There’s quite a bit of persecution of wolves across the border.”

The public’s attitude toward wolves as evildoers is changing. A 2008 poll conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows that 75 percent of Washington residents support wolf recovery.

Alberta and British Columbia have none of the United State’s legislative mechanisms in place, such as the Endangered Species Act, to protect threatened species and their habitat. Both provinces have virtually no limitations or monitoring of the trophy hunting of wolves. Wolves have been scapegoats for the decline of everything from marmots to mountain caribou, and official government policy closely resembles policies of the Old West: Cull, sterilize, and otherwise persecute wolves anyway you can.

Recently, British Columbia made some controversial changes to wolf hunting regulations in the name of mountain caribou recovery by removing the three-animal bag limit for hunting wolves in caribou recovery zones.

In Alberta, the provincial government has gone back to the days of strychnine poisoning, using that method to kill wolves for the last three years—also in the name of protecting endangered caribou herds. The proposal was met with stiff opposition, and just this spring the province suspended its poisoning program while continuing with aerial shooting.  

When seeing the challenges the alpha female and male of the Lookout Pack faced to get here, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they made it. I also begin to understand why we haven’t seen wolf recovery in the Cascades sooner.

But the public’s attitude toward wolves as evildoers is changing. A 2008 poll conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows that 75 percent of Washington residents support wolf recovery. A second poll shows that most hunters in the state support managing a self-sustaining population of wolves, citing among other reasons that all wildlife deserve to flourish. 

Adult male wolf, summer 2008.
Adult male wolf, summer 2008.

Restoring an ancient relationship

Increasingly, research is showing how the long absence of top predators like the wolf has disrupted an ancient and important relationship between predator and prey. For example, a new study published in July by researchers at Oregon State University suggests that the temperate rainforest of Olympic National Park is suffering from the elimination of wolves and subsequent domination by herds of browsing elk. Many stream banks in the park have been largely denuded of young trees needed for recruiting of future, old trees. As a result, the park is a very different place than it was 70 years ago, the researchers say. Riparian areas in the North Cascades with its abundant deer populations could also benefit from the return of wolves.

But perhaps our greatest challenges will be to help the public remember the important role that keystone species like the wolf have on our landscape and to help build tolerance toward them. Perhaps by understanding our early relationships to these creatures, they can once again serve as the powerful symbol of what it means to live in the West. The long silence of the wolf in Washington has finally been broken.

So what will it take to make Washington a state that can continue to support free-roaming critters? Will we continue to have a wild landscape where we coexist with nature? Or will the only place to see wolves and grizzly bears be at the Woodland Park Zoo?

With an estimated 70,000 acres of private undeveloped land and wildlife habitat being converted annually to urban and industrial uses and the added population of 29 more Tacoma-sized cities expected in the next 50 years, the answers to these questions are still uncertain.
But many, including Conservation Northwest, have been looking for solutions. There is a large and growing diversity of people who don’t want to lose “the wild” in “the Wild West.” And that list includes all the governors of the western states.

In 2007, the Western Governors’ Association, largely in response to strong pressure from America’s hunters and anglers to protect wildlife from large energy developments, adopted a resolution to protect wildlife corridors and crucial habitats. This year they followed up with a 140-page report examining issues affecting wildlife movement—from land use to transportation to climate change. They recently urged Congress and the Bush administration to allow more review before companies are allowed to drill in wildlife corridors or sensitive habitat on public lands. 

In Washington State, the Western Governors’ Association wildlife initiative has spawned efforts to understand important wildlife connectivity areas at the state level. A group made up of some of the state’s leading biologists and agency innovators has come together to develop a series of reports that will provide coordinated information on terrestrial wildlife habitat and wildlife movement in Washington. This effort, informally known as the Washington Habitat Connectivity Working Group, will help provide scientific guidance for conservation, land use, and transportation planners and serve as a complement to existing biodiversity assessments, planning, and conservation efforts at the state level.

If wolves and other wide-ranging animals are going to survive and recover in Washington, the types of landscape analyses conducted by the connectivity group will be critical. Our concepts of habitat must evolve beyond discrete lines on a map or an individual park, and must consider the entire fabric of a landscape—how natural areas connect and allow for animals to safely move between these areas.

Conservation Northwest will be actively involved in these and other efforts in addition to continuing our work with local communities, including ranchers and local timber mills, to keep ranchlands and forest lands intact and to develop wildlife management plans. 

But perhaps our greatest challenges will be to help the public remember the important role that keystone species like the wolf have on our landscape and to help build tolerance toward them. Perhaps by understanding our early relationships to these creatures, they can once again serve as the powerful symbol of what it means to live in the West. The long silence of the wolf in Washington has finally been broken.

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