Mixed results in Washington’s 2019 wolf counts; minimum of 145 wolves, 26 packs

Mixed results in Washington’s 2019 wolf counts; minimum of 145 wolves, 26 packs

ConservationNWAdmin / Apr 20, 2020 / Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

Conservation Northwest views the results of the latest wolf count with a mix of optimism and caution.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) released its 2019 year-end minimum count of the state’s wolf population today, showing growth but also continued slow recovery in the Cascade Mountains and Western Washington.

The state’s report indicates there were at least 145 wolves in a minimum of 26 packs at the end of 2019. Although WDFW reports it has for the first time documented individual wolves in the South Cascades, no resident packs have yet been confirmed south of I-90 in the Cascade Mountains.

Additionally, while a wolf was again counted in the Diobsud Creek territory on the west side of the North Cascades in Skagit County, the additional wolf documented in 2018 believed to be that animal’s mate was not confirmed in 2019. While wolf activity continues in this area, the Diobsud Creek wolf is not included in the state’s pack count.

The 2019 confirmed minimum wolf pack map from WDFW. The Diobsud Creek wolf territory is shown in eastern Skagit County, though the pack’s mate could not be confirmed during surveys late last year. Map: WDFW
A bar graph showing Washington’s wolf population growth since 2008. Source: WDFW
A black wolf documented in the North Cascades on February 7, 2020 at a wolverine research station set out through our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project. Photo: CNW

Conservation Northwest views the results of the latest wolf count with a mix of optimism and caution.

“While we’re glad to see another year of wolf population growth and we remain optimistic overall, it’s concerning that progress towards recovery continues to be slow in the Cascades and Western Washington,” said Paula Swedeen, Ph.D., Conservation Northwest Policy Director and a representative on the state’s Wolf Advisory Group (WAG).

“We hope to see more overall spread of the population, growth of breeding pairs, and lower levels of livestock depredations and lethal removal in 2020,” said Swedeen.

Conservation Northwest explores potential factors relating to wolf recovery in the Cascade Mountains in this blog from the organization’s Wolf Team. Additional updates on Wolf Advisory Group discussions will also soon be available.

“As the wolf population begins to recover, we’re going to see population growth slow in parts of the state where the local population is nearing capacity,” said statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke in WDFW’s news release. “It’s a natural occurrence that happens in many wildlife populations and is even more pronounced in a territorial carnivore. Similar to what we would expect, we are seeing the number of packs and the number of individuals level off in northeast Washington while new packs continue to form in the North Cascades recovery area.” (Watch this video for more from Ben)

2019’s statewide minimum wolf count has more uncertainty than past years’ due to a change in how the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CTCR) surveyed wolves. The CTCR changed count methodology because they consider wolves recovered on their lands. Numbers reflect an estimate based on wildlife biologist and hunter observations, not systematic surveys as has been the practice in the past and is done annually by WDFW.

The report and counts released by the state are therefore bifurcated into WDFW-counted wolves and those on the Colville Reservation, with 108 wolves and 21 packs from the WDFW-surveyed areas versus 97 wolves in 22 packs last year, and 37 wolves in five packs on the Colville Reservation compared to 29 in five packs last year.

Combined, it appears that there was a minimum of 145 wolves at the end of 2019, compared to 126 at the end of 2018, with 26 packs compared to 27 packs in 2018.

“Overall, the total minimum counts are still increasing, and the population growth rate of 11 percent is higher than the previous two years,” said Swedeen. “This is good news for Washington’s natural heritage, our ecosystems, and wolf advocates.”

2017’s confirmed minimum population growth rate was six percent, while 2018’s was three percent.

“Unfortunately, growth in the number of breeding pairs, an important indicator of how well a wolf population is poised to grow, may have stalled this year,” says Swedeen.

“There were ten breeding pairs in WDFW-counted areas in 2019 versus 11 in 2018, and an unknown number in CTCR areas last year versus four the previous year. Without knowing what happened on Colville tribal lands, it appears that the number of breeding pairs is at best the same as last year, but likely at least one or two less. That is obviously not the direction we’d hope for, though by no means a collapse.”

Though it’s encouraging to see the new Sullivan Creek Pack southeast of Loup Loup Pass in central Okanogan County, as well as the continued confirmation of the Naneum Pack east of Blewett Pass in northern Kittitas County, it’s disappointing that the Diobsud Creek wolf did not maintain its pack status in 2019. And that the total number of breeding packs in the North Cascades dropped from three to two.

There were fewer packs engaged in conflict with livestock last year than the previous year, but the overall confirmed mortality of 21 wolves killed by various causes was higher than in prior years. The number of state lethal removals in response to persistent livestock depredations (nine) combined with legal caught-in-the-act deaths (three) are indicators of the need to improve efforts to keep livestock and wolves safe from each other.

However, 85 percent of packs were not known to be involved in depredations during 2019. This outcome provides some indication that conflict deterrence is working in most places and most wolves are staying out of trouble, which should make it easier to focus on improving the situation in chronic conflict zones.

While still lower than comparable rates of wolf-livestock conflict in the northern Rocky Mountains region during similar points in wolf recovery, Washington’s 2019 wolf mortality is high compared to the quieter year that Oregon had in 2019.

“Through the Wolf Advisory Group, our Range Rider Project and a local grassroots collaborative, we’re continuing to work on-the-ground with ranchers and WDFW conflict staff,” said Swedeen.

“Productive discussion around updating the state’s Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol as well as the recent investment by the legislature of $320,000 for the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative for increased range riding in the Kettle Range both provide reason for optimism about the year ahead.”

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READ more about work for COEXISTENCE WITH WOLVES, THE RANGE RIDER PILOT PROJECT, or the history of WOLF RECOVERY IN WASHINGTON
Six wolves on a forest road in northeast Washington in 2018. Photo: WDFW