I had a tough winter on Washington’s hallowed wild steelhead waters. Time after time, just when I’d finally schedule a weekend trip to a favorite OP or Grays Harbor river between work and family obligations, mother nature would throw a curveball in the form of bad weather and blown out water. At least the fall and early-winter hatchery steelhead season on the local waters put a few fish in the boat and on the BBQ.

Still, I got out to the coast a few times and had my chances at big, bright wild fish. Unfortunately both those chances, one fish hooked on the swung fly and one on a float and jig, ended up in the fish’s favor.

But when angling for wild winter steelhead, the journey is truly the reward. And from camping trips and long hikes through the rainforest in search of empty glacial water, to sunny days fishing the boat ramp run with a case of beer and good buddies, some great adventures were had during this season’s pursuit of a wild Northwest icon.

Sky Rainbow

December Steel

North Cascades Bulls

North Cascades Bulls

Coastal Steelheading

Winter steelheading

Winter steelheading

Rainforest steelheading

Rainforest steelhead

Rainforest steelhead

Winter steelheading

Winter steelheading

Rainforest steelhead

Winter steelheading


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 road in Washington. Photo: WDFW
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.

Methow and Sinlahekin Road Trip

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:

Want to learn more about Washington’s wolves?

Visit Conservation Northwest’s webpages on Washington wolf recovery and wolf talking points. Or sign up for our action alerts and E-news.


Saturday April 18th 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the UW Seattle Center for Urban Horticulture.

Groups, anglers and citizens concerned about the restoration and protection of native, wild steelhead of the Skagit River in Washington are welcome to attend this event. You’ll hear presentations by noted scientists who work on fisheries and habitat research, and discuss public policy initiatives with wild steelhead advocates.

Agenda and more info below and on the Wild Steelhead Coalition page.



Please call or email your state legislators and tell them to keep their hands off OUR public lands:

WA Public Lands trans

Do you like hiking near Snoqualmie Pass? Skiing or snowboarding off 410 or Highway 2? Camping in the Teanaway, Olympics or at any other National Forest campgrounds? How about fishing, hunting or floating from the BLM property along the Yakima River?

If you like to recreate on federal public lands in Washington, you should be furious with some of our state legislators.

With language buried deep in both the House and Senate 2015-17 capital budget proposals, our elected lawmakers are joining with politicians from states like Utah, Arizona and Wyoming in an attempt to use taxpayer dollars to fund research on “transferring” federal public lands to state ownership; opening the door for expanded resource extraction, environmental degradation, loss of public access, and even the sell off of our public lands to private businesses and resource corporations.

Give your elected state lawmakers a call or email today and tell them not to waste taxpayer money studying this risky and radical idea. Or join the national movements to stop the giveaway of OUR federal public lands:


The landscape in Washington’s central Cascades, spanning Snoqualmie Pass and bisected by Interstate 90, forms an important travel corridor for people, goods and wildlife.

Conservation Northwest’s work to reconnect this landscape and make I-90 safer for both people and wildlife is definitely one of the coolest projects I get to work on. And unlike much of our work in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, it’s right in the heart of the Puget Sound area’s favorite outdoor playground.

I had the idea for this video over beers nearly a year ago and it’s been months of hard work and collaboration with videographers, agency partners and colleagues to bring it to reality. Stoked that it’s finally live and helps tell the story of the unique and important work going on around Snoqualmie Pass.

Learn more about our I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign here.


Comments are needed to support the active recovery of an endangered Northwest native. Click here to submit a public comment through the National Park Service.

My suggested comment is:

Grizzly bears have been an important part of the North Cascades Ecosystem for thousands of years. They play a vital role for the health of the environment and other wildlife species, figure prominently in regional Native American and First Nations’ cultures, and contribute to the richness of our natural heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Quality habitat still exists for grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE). Thus, we have an ethical and legal obligation to restore a healthy grizzly bear population to the North Cascades.

I want to see the best available science used to identify and implement active strategies to restore a viable population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. Therefore, the EIS must include alternatives to add a modest number of grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem under the guidance of local communities, a strategy that has been used successfully in Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. Now is the time to restore a healthy grizzly bear population in the North Cascades.

Yellowstone grizzly bear. Photo USFWS

The below is an action alert for Conservation Northwest:

The National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) are conducting a public planning process (Environmental Impact Study or EIS) for restoring a healthy grizzly bear population in Washington’s North Cascades Ecosystem. 

Only a few grizzly bears remain in the transboundary North Cascades. These endangered Northwest natives need your support today if we are going to conserve and restore them for future generations!

Visit to submit a comment supporting grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades. The current public comment period ends on March 26th, 2015. 

Comments may also be submitted by regular mail or hand delivery at:

Superintendent’s Office
North Cascades National Park Service Complex
810 State Route 20
Sedro Woolley, WA 98284.

Grizzly bears have been an important part of the North Cascades Ecosystem for thousands of years. They play a vital role for the health of the environment and other wildlife species, figure prominently in regional Native American and First Nations’ cultures, and contribute to the richness of our natural heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Now is the time to restore a healthy grizzly bear population in the North Cascades!

Additional talking points to include in your comments:

  • I strongly support the recovery of the North Cascades grizzly bear and commend the NPS, USFWS and WDFW for moving forward with the restoration of this important native species.
  • The recovery coordinating agencies should take into full consideration the ecological, biological, cultural, spiritual and economic importance of grizzly bears to the Pacific Northwest.
  • As the only Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone on the west coast (or outside the greater Rocky Mountains) restoring a healthy North Cascades grizzly bear population is important to the resilience of the species in general, particularly in light of climate change.
  • Quality habitat still exists for grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem. Thus, we have an ethical and legal obligation to restore a healthy grizzly bear population to the North Cascades.
  • There is strong public support for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades that transcends geographic and demographic lines. Washingtonians support healthy wild ecosystems with all the native species present when habitat and ecological conditions allow.
  • I want to see the best available science used to identify and implement active strategies to restore a viable population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. Therefore, the EIS must include alternatives to add a modest number of grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem under the guidance of local communities, a strategy that has been used successfully in Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

Public open houses on the Grizzly Bear Restoration EIS will also be held on:

We’ll be hosting special pre-meeting “happy hours” to help brief supporters on the facts about North Cascades grizzly bear restoration. Visit our North Cascades Grizzly Bear Facebook page to learn the locations of these happy hours and join our Facebook events for each open house.

Want to help show your support online? Use the hashtag #SavetheCascadesGrizzly or follow and share our pages on Twitter @CascadesGrizzly or Instagram @CascadesGrizzly

Why do we need Grizzly Bears in the North Cascades?

  • Grizzly bears are culturally and spiritually significant to First Nations throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Grizzlies are seen as teachers, guides and symbols of strength and wisdom to indigenous peoples. They are a regional icon and a key part of our natural heritage.
  • Grizzly bears are considered an “umbrella” species, and they play an important role for healthy ecosystems. Habitat that supports grizzly bears also supports hundreds of other plants and animals and human needs like clean water, healthy forests and quality outdoor opportunities.
  • Grizzly bears have been part of the Pacific Northwest landscape for thousands of years. We have an ethical and legal obligation to restore this native species. Grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades is an important part of national efforts to restore endangered animals where suitable habitat still exists.

More on North Cascades Grizzly Bear Restoration

  • With nearly 10,000 square miles stretching from I-90 north to the Canadian border and anchored by North Cascades National Park, the designated North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is one of largest blocks of wild federal land remaining in the lower 48 states. But it is isolated from viable grizzly bear populations in other parts of the U.S. and Canada.
  • Research indicates this wilderness landscape has quality habitat capable of supporting a self-sustaining grizzly bear population. A few grizzly bears have recently been sighted in the Canadian part of the ecosystem, but no grizzly bears have been sighted in the United States portion for several years.
  • Given the low number of existing grizzly bears, their very slow reproductive rate and other constraints, the North Cascades grizzly bear population is considered the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the United States today. With so few grizzly bears left in the North Cascades, biologists believe they may soon disappear entirely from the area if recovery actions aren’t taken.

Want even more information? Visit our webpage for our full backgrounder on North Cascades grizzly bear recovery, suggested public talking points, links to more information and a Frequently Asked Questions list from the government agencies leading the recovery process.


Fishing is not an impact-free endeavor. We as anglers undoubtedly leave our mark upon the fish we catch and the waters we enjoy, for better or worse. And whenever possible, conservation-minded anglers should be taking steps to reduce that impact, particularly when sensitive fish and fisheries are concerned.

Stopping fishing completely may be the only way we can eliminate those impacts, and I’m not ready to take that step. But there are ways we can reduce our harm when catch and release fishing. One of them is keeping wild fish in the water prior to release.


Scientific research shows that removing anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead from the water, particularly their head and gills, can have a negative impact on their reproductive capacity and their likelihood of survival.

Are there questions about that research, it’s methods, sample size and variabilities in the findings? Certainly. It’s a topic that needs considerably more scientific work. But the data we do have, as well as common sense and in the case of wild steelhead, the recreational fishing regulations of the State of Washington, says that removing these fish completely from the water is not OK.

For now, that’s good enough for me.

Though I’d much rather harvest and eat species like salmon and steelhead if abundance allows, that’s not possible or ethical for many of our depressed wild fish populations in the Pacific Northwest. So like many others, I often practice catch and release fishing. And as someone who enjoys both fishing and photography, I understand that the “catch photo” can be a key part of C & R.

It’s a way to document the fish without bonking it, show it off to fellow anglers, and preserve an encounter with a beautiful wild creature in perpetuity. I certainly don’t photograph every fish I catch, but the next time I land a big, beautiful wild steelhead, you bet I’m going to take a picture of it.

As long as it’s done with careful, gentle handling and the fish is kept at least partially in the water at all times, keeping wild fish wet doesn’t mean that photo opportunity has to go away.

Like every angler I know, over the years I have removed many fish fully from the water for a “Grip and Grin” photo. And I ‘m not planning on feeling down on myself for that. What I am planning on doing is doing better. Keeping all wild salmon, trout and steelhead at least partially in the water at all times prior to release.

On camera and off, keeping ’em wet.

Rainforest Winter Steelhead Camp


The below is an action alert for the Wild Steelhead Coalition.

Wild steelhead depend on cold, clean, undisturbed gravel in creeks and rivers to spawn. But a growing kind of hobby mining that uses gas-powered vacuums to literally suck up the riverbed is posing a serious threat to habitat that wild steelhead, salmon and trout depend on.

This suction dredge mining produces only small amounts of gold, even the miners admit you can’t make a living on it. But in the process, it obliterates salmon and steelhead redds, kills off important aquatic insects and fish fry, and contributes to harmful sedimentation, erosion, stream channel alteration, and pollution.

Currently, there is almost no regulation on suction dredge mining in Washington’s salmon, trout and steelhead habitat.Even in waters closed to all angling to protect ESA listed runs, suction miners can continue vacuuming up the streambed.

Thankfully, a strong cast of state legislators have proposed House Bill 1162, which would require WDFW to initiate and complete a scientific study that evaluates the effects of motorized mining on native fish species and related habitat.

HB 1162 needs your support, attend a “fish-in” in Olympia Thursday

This Thursday, February 12th, at 1:30 p.m. there will be a public hearing on HB 1162 in front of the House Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources in House Hearing Room B, John L. O’Brien Building, Olympia, WA 98504.

In order to best show the support among anglers and fish advocates for this proposal, our partners at Trout Unlimited are organizing a “Fish-In” in Olympia. Bring your waders, vests, lucky hats and get down to the state capitol this Thursday to speak up for wild fish!

While it doesn’t impose regulations on this destructive mining practice, HB 1162 is a vitally important first step. But to get it passed, we need a strong showing at the committee hearing. With word that the mining lobby will be in attendance in full force, it’s all the more important for anglers, conservationists and wild fish advocates to be heard at the state capitol.

Can’t make it to this Thursday’s hearing? Submit a comment online to tell your legislators you support HB 1162!

Or email committee chairman Representative Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) and tell him you want this bill moved forward.

Sensible regulations on suction dredge mining to protect our iconic wild steelhead, salmon and trout is, well, common sense. HB 1162 is a step in that direction. Show your support and speak up for wild fish!

Rainforest chrome

Wild salmon, steelhead and trout are worth more than gold. 


The below is a piece from the Wild Steelhead Coalition that should have NW wild fish advocates, conservationists and citizens furious.

Whether you agree with anti-hatchery lawsuits or not, SB 5551 is blatantly undemocratic, it’s bad policy for our state, and it perpetuates a petty political disagreement at the expense of the recovery of our wild salmon and steelhead.

Tell your legislator to VOTE NO. 

A Senate bill proposed during the current legislative session could have serious repercussions for advocates of wild salmon and steelhead in Washington state, and for the wild fish they’re working to recover.

Senate Bill 5551 Summary: Deny wild fish organizations state Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributions if they have brought legal action against the state concerning hatchery production within ten calendar years.


Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe-39th)

Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond-19th)

Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Edmonds-32nd)

Find your legislator here and let them know you oppose SB 5551!

Next action:

SB 5551 will be heard on Thursday, February 5th, 2015 at 1:30 p.m. in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Parks, Senate Hearing Room 1, J.A. Cherberg Building, Olympia, WA

Those wishing to provide testimony against SB 5551 at Thursday’s committee hearing will need to sign-in electronically prior to the hearing, or using the sign-in form at the hearing room entrance. Those attending but not providing testimony should sign-in and note they are attending in opposition to SB 5551.

Those unable to attend but wish to provide comment on this misguided bill can do so online here.

Talking points:

  • State Salmon Recovery Board funding was created to support the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead stocks. There is clear scientific evidence that excessive hatcheries can harm and impede wild fish recovery. If passed, SB 5551 would severely undermine the very purpose of the Salmon Recovery Board funding.
  • State Salmon Recovery Board funding is intended to be awarded on the merits of the projects and the ability of the applicants to fulfill the proposed actions which are completely unrelated to whether the individuals or entities have or have not exercised the right to seek court relief for state activity they believe is negatively impacting wild salmon and steelhead.
  • Individuals and NGO’s have sought redress in the courts for decades to insure compliance with state and federal legislation. This is a well-established component of our American democracy, and an effective tool for the conservation of our shared natural heritage. To jeopardize this effort with the threat of funding ineligibility sets a dangerous precedent for our state.
  • It’s clear SB 5551 is petty politics that puts the recovery of our wild salmon and steelhead at risk. These are icons of our region, vitally important for Washingtonians, Native American tribes and our wild ecosystems. Their recovery is too important to be undermined by this misguided legislation.
  • Recovering wild salmon and steelhead in the Northwest will take all of us working together to address all the issues that prevent these iconic fish from returning in healthy numbers. SB 5551 seeks to unfairly penalize those who’ve used their legal rights to seek compliance from public entities when it comes to protections for ESA listed fish species.

More on SB 5551:

SB 5551, introduced by Senator Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe), would deny state Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributions for any project or activity if the project sponsor has brought any legal action against the state before a court or administrative tribunal relating to fish hatchery facility operations within ten calendar years.

Sound science has repeatedly demonstrated that excessive hatchery production can have serious negative impacts on the recovery wild salmon and steelhead. Many advocacy organizations in the Northwest are working to recover populations of these iconic wild fish; through habitat restoration, harvest improvements, and hatchery reform.

Individuals and Non-governmental organizations have long sought redress in the courts to insure compliance with state and federal legislation. This is a well-established component of our American democracy, and an effective tool for the conservation of our shared natural heritage. These advocates argue SB 5551 deliberately jeopardizes this legal right with the threat of funding ineligibility, setting a dangerous precedent for our state.

Many of the same organizations who have challenged misguided or excessive hatchery programs in court also apply for and receive state Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributions for habitat restoration or in-stream connectivity work. Funding that would be preemptively denied if the sponsors of SB 5551 are successful.

The Washington state Salmon Recovery Funding Board provides “funding for elements necessary to achieve overall salmon recovery, including habitat projects and other activities that result in sustainable and measurable benefits for salmon and other fish species.”

This funding was created specially to support the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead stocks. There is clear scientific evidence that excessive hatcheries can harm and impede wild fish recovery. Wild fish advocates argue that if passed, SB 5551 would severely undermine the very purpose of the Salmon Recovery Board funding.

Representatives from the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office and other state agencies tasked with salmon recovery have repeatedly said over the years that for “overall salmon recovery” to be successful, it will take a diverse group of citizens, agencies and organizations working together.

Unfortunately, it seems a small group of legislators is not interested in working together to tackle all the problems facing these iconic fish, including hatcheries. They would rather ignore science and play petty politics against organizations whose views on fish hatcheries they disagree with, seeking to deny state funding for projects that benefit wild salmon and steelhead recovery, and the many people who want to see them make a comeback in our region.

Click here to provide comment online. Live streaming of the Senate Natural Resources & Parks committee hearing will be available via TVW


The below is a piece I authored recently for Conservation Northwest

Last week, we got some news that that made everyone in our Conservation Northwest office smile: Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) biologist Josh Zylstra and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest biologist Aja Woodrow found probable wolverine tracks just eight miles north of I-90.

Not only is this the furthest south that wolverines have been documented in the North Cascades (the area from I-90 in Washington to Canada’s Fraser River Valley) since they were confirmed back in our state, but it is also exactly why we’ve worked so hard to create safe passage for wildlife under and over the busy interstate.

Probable wolverine tracks near I-90. Photo: Josh Zylstra/WSDOT

The wolverine tracks, found in the upper Cle Elum River drainage, come on the heels of wolverine photos captured by Woodrow in December 2014. Those photos came from trail camera locations further up the Cle Elum River watershed and in the nearby Teanaway River drainage, locations northeast of where the wolverine tracks were found last week.

Wolverines are intrepid travelers, capable of covering many miles through rugged and snowy terrain, so it’s possible these sightings represent the movement of one individual wolverine.

If this wolverine is able to successfully expand its territory south of I-90, it might be the start of a vital link between the growing wolverine population in the North Cascades and individual wolverines documented in the Central Cascades (the area from I-90 south to the Columbia River)This southward expansion could also jump-start the species’ recovery in Mount Rainier National Park and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

A number of other wolverine sightings were confirmed across the North Cascades in 2014, evidence that this population is likely growing and expanding it’s range southward.

In August, hiker Jake Gentry captured astonishing photos of a wolverine near the Spider Gap trail north of Lake Wenatchee, delighting outdoor recreationists, conservation organizations and the local media.

A wolverine sighted in August 2014 near Spider Gap. Photo: Jake Gentry

Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project also documented four individual wolverines during our recent Spring-Fall 2014 monitoring season, including at locations north of Stevens Pass and in the Chiwaukum Range west of Leavenworth. Hair samples collected at these monitoring sites are
being tested to determine if they represent a new generation of
wolverines in the North Cascades, or if they are individuals previously

Cascades wolverines recovering, but threats remain

Researchers have called the wolverine “the superheroes of the animal world.” As biologist Doug Chadwick puts it in his book The Wolverine Way, “If wolverines have a strategy it’s this: Go hard, and high and steep and never back down. Not even from the biggest grizzly and least of all from the mountain.”

Once shot on sight, trapped and poisoned as vermin, wolverines were thought to be extinct in Washington by the 1930s. But in recent years Gulo gulo, a member of the weasel family the size of a small Labrador retriever, has been making a comeback in the North Cascades under state protections from hunting and deliberate trapping. Genetic data from “hair snares” has linked Washington’s resurgent population to wolverines in Canada.

A wolverine north of Stevens Pass in 2014. Photo: CNW/CWMP

Today biologists believe Washington’s North Cascades wolverine population consists of less than three dozen animals, with only around 300 wolverines remaining across the lower 48 states. A lone wolverine was also documented north of Mount Adams and in the Goat Rocks Wilderness area in 2009, but no wolverine population has been confirmed in Washington south of I-90.

Nationally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed listing the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2013. However, that proposal was withdrawn in 2014 at the request of state officials in the Northern Rockies opposed to the ESA listing.

Conservation groups, including Conservation Northwest, have since filed an intent to sue notice with the USFWS for its refusal to protect the species under the ESA, citing that the agency disregarded well-established scientific evidence, including the recommendations of its own scientists, in refusing to protect wolverines.

Though wolverines are renowned for being bold and ferocious, they are primarily carnivorous scavengers, feasting on a wide variety of foods, including carrion from winter-killed deer, elk and mountain goats. They will also hunt small mammals, including pikas, marmots, ground squirrels, porcupines and snowshoe hares, as well as eat bugs, berries, eggs and roots.

Wolverines are generally extremely wary of people and do not pose a risk to hikers or backcountry travelers.

Though they’re making a comeback in our region, these elusive creatures have slow reproductive rates and are highly dependent on protected mountain habitats, large wild territories, and a deep snowpack that persists well into the spring for their breeding dens. While they occupy an important niche in the mountain ecosystem, wolverine populations are slow to recover from threatened levels, and are notoriously difficult to study.

Wolverine research ongoing in the Cascades

Biologists like Woodrow and Zylstra, as well as researchers
from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Woodland Park Zoo and our own Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project (CWMP), are continuing to add to our knowledge about the resurgence these animals are making in the Cascades.

If this wolverine is able to successfully expand its territory south of I-90, it could be the start of a vital link between the growing wolverine population in the North Cascades and individual wolverines documented in the Central Cascades

Researchers are hoping to better understand the distribution
and abundance of wolverines in the Cascades said Woodrow. They’re also working to answer the question of “Does I-90 currently fracture the flow of wolverine genetics between the North and South Cascades?And if so, once the I-90 wildlife crossing structures are complete, will wolverine genetic connectivity be restored?”

Wolverine in the Cle Elum River drainage. Photo: Aja Woodrow/USFS

The result of years of work by Conservation Northwest, the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, the Cascades Conservation Partnership, state, community and business leaders, and WSDOT, construction is now complete on three wildlife undercrossings at I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass. Construction on two overcrossings, or wildlife bridges, is fully funded and scheduled to begin this spring near
Lake Easton. This important connectivity work is part of the state’s I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project.

When the project is complete, wildlife including elk, deer, wolves and wolverines will have access to numerous safe crossings under and over the busy interstate, connecting habitat in the north and central Cascades, promoting genetic interchange between animal populations, and protecting both wildlife and drivers from potentially deadly collisions.

Only time will tell if the wolverine documented last week just north of I-90 will find the new undercrossings at Gold Creek and Rocky Run this winter. If it does, WSDOT motion-activated cameras should be able to photograph the historic crossing.

Whether that happens this winter or sometime in the future, the recent sightings are evidence that the wolverine population in the North Cascades appears to be growing, and is expanding it’s range southward. 

If this recovery continues, it’s possible Washington’s wolverines could someday link up with wolverines in Oregon, where at least two wolverines exist in the Wallowa Mountains but the species remains unconfirmed in the South Cascades. Or even with wolverines in California, where at least one exists in the northern Sierra Nevada.

Return of a mountain icon

The elusive wolverine is an icon of North American wilderness — an animal that can scale steep, snow-covered mountains, dig dead mountain goats out of avalanche debris for food, fend off much larger predators, and travel hundreds of miles during the middle of winter. When most creatures are hunkered down in hibernation or have fled to the lowlands to wait for spring, the wolverine remains, lord of it’s mountain domain.

It’s easy to be inspired by these amazing creatures. At Conservation Northwest we’ve been rooting for them and working hard to support their recovery since they returned to the Washington Cascades in the mid-2000s. Today, we’re thrilled to see these indomitable Northwest natives reach a new milestone in their epic return to our region.

A North Cascades wolverine captured on remote camera in 2014. Photo: CNW/CWMP