Washington state wildlife officials will kick off a study later this year to consider whether some of the state’s growing wolf population should be relocated to areas where there are none, such as the Cascade Mountains west of the Tri-Cities.
Now the state is divided into three regions for wolf recovery management, with no confirmed wolf packs in the region that spreads from the Tri-Cities west to the coast.
The region, called the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast, has an easternmost boundary of Highway 395 as it runs through the Tri-Cities to as far north as Moses Lake. It also includes the coastline of Washington state up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, making it the largest of the state’s three wolf recovery regions.
The state Legislature has ordered the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct an environmental study on relocating some wolf packs from areas where the populations of animals are growing rapidly.
Some legislators have pushed for the relocation to speed up completion of recovery goals set for all three wolf recovery areas.
“The problem I have, is that if we don’t see any wolves in those . . . other recovery zones there’s really no limit to how many wolf packs could end up in our backyard,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, last year.
Meeting to be held in Tri-Cities
It’s highly unlikely that wolves would be considered for relocation to the shrub steppe area of the Mid-Columbia, but state and federal land in the southern Cascade Mountains west of the Tri-Cities could be considered.
A meeting to consider what the study should consider was planned for early June in the Tri-Cities, but has been postponed to a date yet to be determined in the fall, said Mike Livingston, the south central regional director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at a meeting last week of the Benton County Commission.
The delay in the start of the study came as state lawmakers agreed that Fish and Wildlife officials could wrap the study of relocating wolves into a planned study of how to manage the state’s wolves now that the goals of the original wolf recovery plan could be reached soon and the wolves could be delisted.
Wolves were once widespread in Washington state, but were virtually eliminated from the state in the 1930s, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But their numbers have rebounded since 2008 when a resident pack was documented in Okanogan County, which is on the Canadian border.
Wolf population grows 28 percent a year
The state’s wolf population has grown by an average of 28 percent per year since then, Livingston said.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department completed a wolf conservation and recovery plan in 2011, knowing wolves were moving into the state from Canada, Idaho and Oregon and needed to be prepared.
No wolves have been caught elsewhere, Livingston said.
The latest wolf count for Washington state released last month showed the state had a minimum of 126 individual wolves in 2018. There are likely more that have not been documented yet.
The known wolf population includes 27 packs of at least two wolves and 15 breeding pairs that have had at least one pup survive for several months.
The increase in wolves recorded in 2018 was modest at just four more than in 2017, but the number of packs grew by five and there was one more breeding pair, setting the stage for more growth in 2019.
“Packs and breeding pairs are the building blocks of population growth,” said Donny Martorello, wolf policy lead for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, when the updated numbers were released.
Most of the packs are in northeast Washington state to the north and northwest of Spokane.
Those closest to the Tri-Cities are in the Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla near the Oregon border. They include the eight wolves of the Grouse Flats pack, the four wolves of the Touchet pack and the two wolves each of the Tucannon and Butte Creek packs.
For the first time, a wolf pack was documented in 2018 west of the Cascade Crest in Skagit County in the Northern Cascades.
“They are moving — not at the rate we thought they would or at the rate that some would wish they would — but they are moving across the state, and that distribution is happening on its own,” Livingston said.
Federal and state endangered species status
Now there are enough wolves in Eastern Washington — east of Kennewick, Moses Lake and Omak — for the gray wolf to no longer be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Washington state has the authority to kill wolves if there are problems with cows and sheep. The state has less flexibility in managing wolves in the rest of the state and does not use lethal means.
However, in March the U.S. Department of Interior proposed ending remaining Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves across the nation as populations have rebounded, a move that Kelly Susewind, director of Washington state Fish and Wildlife, supports.
Wolves in Washington state have been listed as endangered since 1980, even as their federal classification has changed in Eastern Washington.
But state scientists are reviewing the viability of wolf populations now to determine if they remain endangered.
A recommendation could be made by staff to the state Fish Wildlife Commission later this year or early next year on whether the gray wolf population is recovered or should be continued to be listed by the state for a few more years.