Counting Wolves in Washington: 2022 Annual Report Shows Growth in Packs and Breeding Pairs

People generally fall into two groups when it comes to wolves. Those who love them and are happy they’re on the landscape, and those whose livelihood depends on livestock production may not want them here.

It seems Washington wolves are seen as either saints or sinners. Ben Maletzke, Statewide Wolf Specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), would like everyone to know that these animals are not nearly the same big bad wolves everyone makes them out to be.

The Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2022 Annual Report was released on April 6th and showed that “Washington’s wolf population continued to grow in 2022 for the 14th consecutive year.”

Washington Wolf History

The gray wolf was eradicated from its traditional ranges in Washington state by the early 1930s. However, in the mid to late 90s and early 2000s, the WDFW started seeing an upswing in reports of wolves being spotted in Northeast Washington and by 2008, the department had confirmed Washington’s first wolf pack.

Contrary to popular opinion, these wolves were never formally re-introduced. They returned naturally from British Columbia, Idaho and Montana to the land they historically populated until European settlers extirpated them in favor of their more valuable livestock. Part of Maletzke’s job for the WDFW is to find wolves, see where they are recolonizing and count them to see how recovery is progressing.

Wolf Recovery Explained

In 2007, anticipating the dispersal of wolves into Washington from surrounding states and provinces and the likely formation of resident packs, the WDFW initiated the development of a state Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for Washington. [1]

The Plan designated three recovery regions: Eastern Washington, the Northern Cascades, Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast.

Gray wolves have three classifications in Washington State: Endangered (seriously threatened with extinction), Threatened (likely to become endangered without help and management) and Sensitive (vulnerable or declining). Population goals were set for each region in anticipation of de-listing wolves when those goals were achieved.

How to Count a Wolf

Wolves are counted in a variety of ways throughout the year. Biologists use snowmobiles to look for tracks and signs that the canines are near. Trail cams allow them to observe any animals in the area when those signs are found.

In the summer, rubber leg traps are used in those areas to try to capture and collar adults. Helicopters flying 10 feet off the ground at 30 mph are used to track and tranquilize collared individuals. Biologists take measurements and tissue samples and microchip the animals to keep tabs on the health of collared individuals.

Once the collars are in place, a fixed-wing airplane circles the area to locate collar signals, find a pack, physically count all the individuals and figure out what the pack’s territory looks like. However, the larger the population of wolves gets, the harder it is to have a collar in every pack.

In addition, collaring missions are dangerous for the animals and personnel, so the WDFW is looking for other/better ways to count wolves. One such method, AudioMoth, a listening device, has been used to record and identify different howls enabling biologists to hear, rather than see, how many wolves are in the area close to the device.

Watch the WDFW’s How to Count a Wolf on YouTube here.

2022 Annual Wolf Report

According to the annual report, at the end of 2022, the WDFW and tribes in the area counted a minimum of 216 wolves in 37 packs in Washington, an increase of 5% over 2021. Twenty-six of these packs were successful breeding pairs. The WDFW also documented Washington’s first pack to recolonize the south Cascades this winter.

These numbers compare with 2021’s count of 206 wolves in 33 packs and 19 breeding pairs. Since the first WDFW survey in 2008, the state’s wolf population has grown by an average of 23% per year.

Eight new packs formed in 2022, including the Big Muddy pack in Klickitat County, the Napeequa and Maverick packs in Chelan County, the Chopaka and Chewuch packs in Okanogan County, the Wilmont pack on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CTCR) in Ferry County, the Five Sisters pack in Stevens County, and the Mt. Spokane pack in Spokane County.

Most wolf packs were not involved in documented livestock depredation in 2022. Eighty-one percent were not involved in any known or probable livestock depredations, while 19% of known wolf packs were involved in at least one confirmed depredation.

Only three packs were involved in two or more depredations. Fifteen cattle and two sheep were confirmed killed by wolves, and one was likely killed by wolves. Also, nine cattle were confirmed as injured, and two were likely injured by wolves in 2022 by seven packs.

“Implementation of proactive, nonlethal deterrence efforts by livestock producers, community partners, range riders, and WDFW staff has minimized documented livestock depredation and removal of wolves, all while our wolf population continues to grow,” said WDFW Wolf Policy Lead Julia Smith.

The WDFW documented 37 wolf mortalities during 2022, including six removed by the department in response to wolf-livestock conflict, three killed in caught in the act of depredating on livestock, seven of natural causes (two killed by cougars, one killed by a moose, one killed by other wolves, two of old age and one pup died from malnutrition), one unknown, 11 legally harvested by tribal hunters (one by the Spokane Tribe and ten by the CTCR hunters), and nine mortalities from unlawful take still under investigation.[1]

As the debate over wolf management continues, the 2022 annual wolf report in Washington State offers both good news and challenges. In the end, as wolf biologist Gabe Spence says that these animals are very normal in a lot of ways. Wolves have no idea they’re controversial; they’re “just doing regular wolf stuff every day.” With continued dedication to coexistence between wolves and humans, there is a bright future for these magnificent animals in Washington State.

[1] Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2022 Annual Report

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