As a hunter and someone who has spent time in Northwest wolf country with ranchers, cowboys, wolf biologists and predator conflict specialists, I understand the need to use the best available science to responsibly manage gray wolf populations once they’ve reached sustainable recovery levels.
At the same time, I also want to hunt and recreate in healthy wild landscapes, places where I’m not the only predator out in the woods.
Hunters, anglers and other recreationists head into the outdoors because it connects us with a vital piece of our human and natural heritage. I believe those connections and that heritage are diminished when native carnivores are absent from the wild places we visit.
Gray wolf on a forest road in Washington state. Photo: WDFW
Wolves can certainly have localized impacts on deer, elk and other prey species including changes to behavior, range and even threats to healthy population levels if predator densities become over-saturated. At a local level this can impact hunter success and ungulate population health. Once wolf populations have recovered to sustainable levels, this impact, as well as possible impacts to domestic livestock, necessitates informed and thoughtful predator management. Just like we manage so many other wildlife species in the modern era.
But other than the uniquely threatened South Selkirks mountain caribou herd, there has been no evidence that with likely less than 100 wolves in Washington today, they have yet caused any serious impacts to ungulate populations or other prey species in our state.
And there is scant evidence that wolves are actually “decimating” game herds in the Northern Rockies region as some claim. Albeit this limited impact is likely in part due to the active wolf hunting and management that began there after gray wolf populations officially “recovered” around 2010-11.
For example even with over 550 wolves and nearly 150 wolf packs in Montana in 2014, elk populations in nearly all of that state’s Hunting Districts continue to be at or over objective. Elk numbers have dropped in some areas of Montana, Idaho (the Lolo, Sawtooth and Salmon River zones in particular) and Wyoming, but many of those Northern Rockies elk populations were at an unhealthy high level prior to wolf recovery. And there is also significant habitat loss and other factors at work in the Northern Rockies in addition the the return of the gray wolf.
However, wolves can and do cause problems for livestock operators if thorough conflict avoidance measures aren’t employed. Even with tactics like range riding, fladry, guard dogs and carcass composting, some wolf packs (some experts argue one in seven packs) will still occasionally prey on domestic animals such as cows and sheep if opportunities exist. If herd supervision, carcass removal, wolf hazing and other management actions aren’t taken swiftly in response, wolf packs can become habituated to feeding on livestock in these instances.
What’s more, new research has shown that killing wolves may even increase the likelihood of such conflict with domestic animals.
Despite their tendency to occasionally depredate on livestock, as a keystone species wolves also provide vital ecosystem benefits, they can improve the health of game herds and in my mind they deserve careful conservation on our western landscapes. And they hold an important place in our shared natural heritage.
Love ’em or hate ’em, gray wolves are icons of the West.
Still, Endangered Species Act protections are not meant to be infinite. Conservation Northwest supports delisting wolves and other endangered species when the best available science shows the population has reached a level where local recovery can be sustained without federal ESA protections. But with only a dozen confirmed wolves in Washington’s Cascades and seven in the Oregon Cascades, we’re simply not there yet.
On the range with USFS and University of Washington wolf researchers. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Wolves in the Cascades and other areas of western Washington and Oregon are just beginning to gain a foothold for recovery. And that recovery has already been seriously hampered by illegal poaching. These iconic animals are part of the rich natural heritage of the Pacific Northwest, and there is strong public support for wolf recovery in the region.
Wolves remain listed as a state endangered species by both Washington and Oregon. But on the federal level, Washington is split into two separate wolf populations.
In the eastern third of the state, roughly east of a line consisting of Highway 97 and the north-south section of the Columbia River, wolves are considered part of the Northern Rocky Mountain Population (56 confirmed animals in WA at the end of 2014), which was taken off the federal endangered species list in 2011. In the western two-thirds of the state, wolves are considered part of the Pacific Northwest Population, which is much smaller (12 confirmed animals at the end of 2014) and still federally listed as endangered.
At the end of 2014, state wildlife officials in Washington and Oregon confirmed only 19 total wolves in the Pacific Northwest Population (*Another Oregon wolf, OR25, was confirmed in that state’s Cascades in April 2015).
Genetic analysis of wolves recolonizing the Washington Cascades has also shown the Lookout, Wenatchee and Teanaway Packs to be descendants of coastal wolves from southwestern British Columbia. Wolves from the coastal areas of B.C. and southeast Alaska tend to be smaller and have more reddish coloring than their interior cousins. And they’re known to feed on salmon and shellfish. These unique genetic traits are another factor that distinguishes Washington’s Pacific Northwest wolves from the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.
Unfortunately even with these very low confirmed wolf numbers in the Pacific Northwest Population, a freshmen U.S. Representative from central Washington this week proposed to remove all federal protections from wolves in Washington, Oregon and Utah.
The bill would also prevent these states from providing wolf protections that are stronger than those in place at the federal level.
The time will come to delist the Northwest’s gray wolves at both the state and federal levels. But in my opinion with so few wolves in the Cascades, now is not the time to hamstring natural wolf recovery in the Pacific Northwest by completely removing federal protections.
These Federal ESA protections, including the greater recovery management resources and the strong poaching deterrents they provide, should remain in place for Washington and Oregon’s Pacific Northwest wolf population until our region’s wolf numbers are much closer to scientifically-sound recovery benchmarks.
Read more about this proposal in the links below:
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