Last week, we got proof-positive that wild wolves are back in Washington. An animal that was struck and killed on a road in northeast Washington was genetically confirmed to be a wolf, not a wolf-dog hybrid. A good article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review provides some context:
Numerous reports of wolves seen or photographed in remote parts of northeast Washington in recent years suggest the animals are dispersing from Idaho, Montana and Canada. But those unconfirmed sightings, primarily in Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, might have been of wolf-hybrids, which Luers said appear nearly identical to gray wolves.
Last year a rancher near Laurier, Wash., found a calf that had been partially eaten by a predator with large canine tracks. Some officials were convinced that a wolf—not a hybrid—killed the calf. But Luers noted wolf-hybrids have been known to kill livestock as well.
While no physical proof has been found, state wildlife officials believe wolf packs have moved into Okanogan County. In response to reports of sightings, biologists surveyed the west half of the county and heard vocalizations indicating adult and juvenile wolves were in the area. The biologists visited several locations and made wolf-like howls, and they heard multiple adult and juvenile howls in response.
If you’re not familiar with Washington’s geography, the significance is that these are pretty different areas. Northeast Washington (Pend Oreille and Stevens County) is a fair distance from the places in western Okanogan County where wolves are alleged to be in residence.
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In fact, late last month, the Wenatchee World had a fascinating article on wolf sightings in western Okanogan County. (By the way, what’s up with all the solid wolf journalism? I want hyperventilating and hysterics!) Details are worth reading:
A state biologist said Monday that he believes one or more packs of gray wolves are living in the Methow Valley…
Packers have made numerous reports of wolves in the high country in the past couple of years, and there have been increasing reports by residents in lower elevations, he said.
Fitkin said there have been reliable wolf sightings in the Methow dating to the early 1990s, but only sporadic, unconfirmed reports of wolf packs.
“What’s changed recently is that we’ve had repeated observations of multiple animals in the greater Twisp River/Chelan Sawtooth and Libby Creek areas,” he said, adding, “My suspicion is, based on the sighting history, its development is very similar to how recolonization in the Rockies occurred. This is looking like we very well may have some wolves on the landscape.”
The World article has a couple of persuasive photographs too.
What’s more, there’s a very good chance that there are also wolves in southeastern Washington, in the Blue Mountains. As I’ve written here and here, there have been wolves confirmed in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains—and there’s no real geographic barrier to their range expansion in that region.
Why do wolves matter? Because they’re a symbol of a healing ecosystem, one that’s been sick since the 1930s when wild wolves were poisoned, trapped, and hunted into oblivion in the US Northwest. And because wolves are themselves agents of ecological restoration: as wolf populations in the Rocky Mountains have flourished, their presence has re-balanced whole ecosystems in astonishing ways, a phenomenon that’s been especially well documented in Yellowstone National Park.
The Rocky Mountain wolves—numbering more than 1,000—have recently been “de-listed” from the strictest endangered species protections, so it’s once again legal to hunt them. This will almost certainly depress their population locally, but it is encouraging to see them re-claiming their territory into Oregon and Washington. They’re making the wilderness wild again.
Update: The evidence gets stronger. After I wrote this post, the Associated Press reported (also a good article) that two Okanogan wolves were captured and radio-collared. More here:
State Fish and Wildlife biologists and wolf experts from Idaho captured what they believe are two wolves Friday in western Okanogan County, a development that could confirm the first wolf pack in Washington since the animals were eradicated decades ago.
The biologists fitted both animals with radio collars to track their movements and learn more about them. They also took fur samples for DNA testing to confirm that the animals are not hybrids, state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Madonna Luers said.
However, one of the wolves was a lactating female nursing pups, Luers said, and domesticated hybrid animals are not known to reproduce in the wild.
And similar to what the Spokesman-Review reported:
On July 7, biologists conducted a “howling survey” in the area in search of a wolf pack and heard both adult and juvenile howls in response.
Update 7/21: It escaped my notice at the time, but on Friday a Montana district court issued an injunction that returns the Rocky Mountain wolves to their former protected status under the Endangered Species Act. Among other things, that means no wolf hunting this fall contra what I reported above. The Idaho Statesman has coverage.