Why aren’t there more wolf packs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains?

Why aren’t there more wolf packs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains?

ConservationNWAdmin / Apr 21, 2020 / North Cascades, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

Perspectives on factors that may be limiting statewide wolf recovery in Washington.

BY JAY SHEPHERD, PH.D., WOLF PROGRAM LEAd, and the CNW wolf team

There are wolves and wolf packs in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state—something I never thought would happen when I was helping my grandad on his ranch in Eastern Washington in the 1980’s.

Pups from the Lookout Wolf Pack in the Methow Valley, first documented by the Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project in 2008. Photo: CNW

Following reliable reports of wolves around Ross Lake in the early 2000’s, the first known pack to return to our state since canis lupus was extirpated in the early 20th century was the Lookout Pack on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades. Conservation Northwest (CNW) volunteers documented this pack’s first litter of pups in 2008.

Since then, wolves have spread, especially from British Columbia and Idaho into Washington’s northeast and southeast corners, totaling a minimum of 145 wolves at the end of 2019. This represents at least an 11 percent growth rate over the prior year’s wolf population.

From the Lookout Pack near Twisp, to the Loup Loup and Sullivan Creek packs in the highcountry between the Methow and Okanogan Valleys, to the Teanaway and Naneum packs on either side of Blewett Pass north of Ellensburg, five known wolf packs now maintain home ranges in the eastern foothills of Washington’s North Cascades.

After photos of a black male wolf in 2017, followed by documentation of that animal’s suspected mate, a gray female, Western Washington’s first known pack in nearly a century was confirmed in Skagit County as of late 2018: the Diobsud Creek pair. Unfortunately, only one wolf was documented in this area during 2019 surveys. While wolf activity continues in the wild country north of Highway 20 west of North Cascades National Park, the Diobsud Creek wolf was not included in the latest count of 26 packs.

Twelve years since the Lookout Pack was first confirmed, there are no known packs in Western Washington. And while the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) reports it has for the first time documented wolves in the South Cascades, no resident packs have been confirmed south of I-90 in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

Varying rates of wolf recovery

The varying rates of wolf recovery in different parts of the state are interesting and merit discussion. Questions arise around why there are relatively few packs in the North Cascades, and even fewer packs just north of I-90 and none to the south. This pattern has been evident since the first pack map was produced in 2012.

Looking at all the maps over the course of the last seven to eight years, there has been a strong rate of recovery in the northeastern and, more recently, the southeastern corners of the state, with a relatively low rate of dispersal to and recovery in the Cascade Mountains. This is not to say dispersal and the formation of packs is not happening to some degree, but why isn’t it as fast and robust as predicted or expected?

This question is not only interesting biologically, but the answer also has social and political implications, and affects wolf recovery goals and other management issues.

The end of 2019 confirmed minimum wolf pack map from WDFW. The Diobsud Creek wolf territory is shown, though the pack’s mate could not be confirmed in 2019. Map: WDFW

Wolf recovery in Washington

Under the state’s current Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, which was finalized in 2012 after years of input by CNW and other stakeholders as well as thousands of public comments, a successful breeding pack has at least an adult male and female that produces at least two pups surviving until the end of a given calendar year.

There are three recovery zones in Washington, and wolves are considered recovered in the state when:

Map of the three recovery zones delineated in the WDFW Wolf Conservation and Management Plan over-laid on suitable wolf habitat. Map: WDFW
  • each of the wolf recovery zones have four successfully breeding packs
  • three additional breeding packs exist anywhere in the state, for a total of 15 packs
  • each of the 15 packs are successfully breeding packs for three consecutive years

OR

  • each of the wolf recovery zones have four successfully breeding packs
  • six additional breeding packs exist anywhere in the state, for a total of 18 packs
  • each of the 18 packs are successfully breeding packs for one year and occurring during the same year

One of the overarching goals of the Wolf Plan is to “restore the wolf population in Washington to a self-sustaining size and geographic distribution that will result in wolves having a high probability of persisting in the state through the foreseeable future (>50-100 years).”

To reach the goal of a recovered wolf population according to the state’s plan, wolves must initially have a relatively robust reproducing population as well as be geographically distributed. Washington is currently working on a post-recovery conservation and management plan, a process expected to take two to three years.

Wolves in the Cascades

The View from Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park, between Marblemount and Stehekin.

With its steep and rugged terrain, much of the North Cascades is not conducive to year-round or even seasonal use by ungulates (hooved animals such as deer and elk, or wolf prey) and therefore by wolves.

However, wolf recovery is progressing slowly and steadily in the river valleys surrounding the North Cascades. This is to be expected given the region’s geography and relatively low prey abundance. But there is a stark difference in both these factors as one moves south down the Cascade range: south of Highway 2 and the Stuart Range, the valleys broaden, and to a relative extent, the terrain becomes less rugged, better suited for both wolves and their prey.

So what are the limiting factors that may be slowing progress for wolves to recolonize the Southern Cascades? There are several potential reasons for slow wolf recovery, and they all may play a role to some degree. It is a complex, multi-layered answer. Below are some of those potential layers.

Are the habitat and prey populations in the Cascades strong enough to draw wolves from northeastern Washington and Canada?

The eastside of the North Cascades lacks the Rocky Mountain elk, white-tailed deer and moose population levels found in northeast and southeast Washington. There are fairly abundant mule deer populations in the Okanogan region of British Columbia and Washington, with similar populations of the related black-tailed deer in the forests west of the Cascade Crest. But both subspecies of mule deer may be in lower densities at mid-elevations than they are in the valleys where ungulates and humans both live and thrive, and both can also use higher, steep terrain. Wolves are still adept at hunting deer in these rugged areas, but the lower overall density of prey and difficult terrain may be limiting wolf numbers in these areas.

A wolf from the Diobsud Pack in Western Washington near North Cascades National Park in 2018. Photo: WDFW

While the river valleys west of the crest are home to the Nooksack and Skagit elk herds, as well as black-tailed deer, the combination of heavy human development and agriculture in the valley bottoms combined with nearby “refuge” habitat in the form of steep, heavily-forested ridges limits the available quality wolf habitat on the westside of the North Cascades.

That the Diobsud Creek wolf established territory in a mix of national forest and industrial timberland east of Lake Shannon and north of Highway 20 is no surprise; the terrain here is notably less steep, of mixed vegetation, and generally more conducive for ungulates than the glacially-carved, U-shaped valleys deeper in the North Cascades.

Basically, the question remains, is there enough prey for wolves in the North Cascades on both sides of the crest to attract a significant wolf population that provides a source population of wolves for dispersal to the south, where the habitat improves?

Aren’t there wolves dispersing to and inhabiting Washington’s South Cascades?

It’s excellent wolf habitat, and we now know there are wolves there. People experienced with wolves have observed sign over the years—tracks, scats, etc. Currently, wolves do not appear to be there in numbers necessary to form packs, breeding pairs or anything close to being labeled a recovered population in the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast recovery zone.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Northwest, and the University of Washington’s Conservation Canines have put emphasis on better understanding wolf presence and distribution in the South Cascades.

We’re also working with partners to support elk and deer populations here, which enjoy excellent summer range in subalpine forests and meadows, but face limited winter range due to human development around Ellensburg, Yakima and other areas. Disease and harsh winters may have also contributed to ungulate declines in the South Cascades over the past two decades.

Why might wolf dispersal to the southern Cascades and Olympics be slower than other regions have seen?

One issue is that wolves are attracted to other wolves; dispersing wolves moving into a region tend to find each other. Wolves with genetics from Canada moved into the panhandle in northern Idaho and met the translocated population from central Idaho, filling available habitat. Perhaps this has not occurred with enough frequency to initiate a robust population in Washington’s Cascades.

A wolf documented near Stevens Pass on February 7, 2020 at a wolverine research station set out through our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project.

The distance to source populations also makes a difference, and established northeastern and southeastern wolf populations are relatively far from the Cascades—maybe not that far for wolves, as they are amazing wanderers, as is evidenced by dispersal patterns in Oregon and into northern California, but far enough to make recolonization of the southern Cascades slower. Additionally, the Okanogan River valley has a relatively high human population for wolves to disperse across and is open country, creating more barriers to movement, therefore making recolonization less likely to occur. We’re working to reduce these barriers through our Safe Passage 97 project and collaboration with local landowners.

The Columbia Basin and its agricultural landscape, Interstates 90 and 5, and human densities may also affect the dispersal of wolves to the southern Cascades and Olympics. Areas of denser human populations and the associated structures, highways or buildings, may not be complete impediments, but could have a slowing effect on wolf recolonization.

Are the hunting seasons in British Columbia and on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation (both adjacent to the Cascades), the lethal removal of wolves to stop cattle depredations events in northeast Washington, and poaching events in all states and provinces slowing the dispersal of wolves to the Cascades?

Perhaps. This is hard to know for certain. If there is a surplus in the wolf population and one to three year-old wolves need to disperse but various forms of lethal removal are occurring, potentially removing curious or wandering younger wolves, then the removed wolves may have been recolonizing dispersers.

While wolf populations remain robust in northeast Washington, enough to generate dispersing wolves looking for new territory, there is likely some affect on the overall population. Poaching has been a significant problem in the Cascades and perhaps other areas.

I look forward to sharing more perspectives as information becomes available, including through a Predator-Prey Project currently being conducted by the University of Washington and the state, and the aforementioned surveys for wolves in the South Cascades.

After a decade in northeast Washington trying to figure out where wolves will show up and when they will do so, how to help ranchers coexist with wolves, and how to navigate all the politics, I am left with more questions than answers. That is what makes it both fascinating and frustrating, adding up to mean it is just very interesting. May you live in interesting, but safe, times.

Jay Shepherd coordinates our Wolf Program, including managing our Range Rider Pilot Project and working with local ranchers and conservationists in northeast Washington. Dr. Shepherd has a long history in wildlife research and management with state and federal agencies in western North America, most recently immersed in wolf recovery and reducing wildlife conflicts in Washington. He has a B.S. in Wildlife Resources, an M.S. in Wildlife Biology, and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho.

READ OUR STATEMENT ON THE LATEST STATEWIDE WOLF COUNTS, OR LEARN MORE ABOUT WOLF RECOVERY IN WASHINGTON STATE.
A gray wolf documented in near Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains. Photo: CWMP