16 Jul 2008, 10:45am
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Breeding Wolves Reported in WA State

Outdoor News Bulletin, July 2008 [here]

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists have found strong evidence of a reproducing gray wolf population along the eastern edge of the state’s northern Cascade Mountains, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.  On July 8, while conducting howling surveys in Methow Valley, the biologists received responses from numerous juvenile and adult wolves, indicating a breeding pair or a pack.  If confirmed, this would mark Washington’s first documented case of a resident gray wolf population since the 1930s, when wolves were extirpated from the state.

“We heard [howling] responses from pups or juveniles first, quickly followed by howling from adults at the same location,” said Scott Fitkin, district wildlife biologist for WDFW.  For the last several months, Fitkin and other biologists routinely checked areas in Methow Valley for signs of an established wolf population.  This was in response to several reports of individual and multiple wolf sightings by local ranchers and hikers.  Located in western Okanogan County, Methow Valley supports the state’s largest migrating deer herd, which, according to Fitkin, provides a more-than-ample prey base for large carnivores.

According to WDFW officials, biologists from the state and U.S. Forest Service are collecting DNA samples and remote camera images of the wolves heard during howling surveys.  WDFW also plans to cooperate with federal agencies to capture and radio collar some of the animals to track their movements.

Gray wolf sightings in Washington’s northern Cascade Mountains have been reported since the 1980s.  In the early 1990s, state biologists conducting a project to investigate the potential presence of grizzly bears and gray wolves in the state elicited howling responses from single adult animals and, on two occasions, these responses included pup vocalizations.  These responses came from the northern portion of the North Cascades, suggesting likely wolf immigration from British Columbia.  None of these investigations, however, produced verification of reproducing wolf populations or that the observed wolves were not hybrids; DNA tests for differentiation did not exist at the time.

“It is highly unlikely that domesticated hybrid wolves would establish a reproducing pack in the wild,” said Fitkin.  “If a wolf pack exists in Methow Valley, its animals most likely are wild.”  Fortunately, advances in DNA mapping will allow researchers to determine with confidence the subtle differences between pure and hybrid wolves.

Gray wolves are federally protected as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in only the western two-thirds of Washington.  Land east of state routes 97 and 17 is included within the Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf Distinct Population Segment (NRM DPS) that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted from the ESA on March 28, 2008.  Gray wolves currently are listed as state endangered species throughout Washington.  Since the areas with current wolf activity are west of the NRM DPS, future wolf management in Methow Valley will be subject to federal or state wolf-response guidelines.

Although WDFW strongly contested the inclusion of Washington’s eastern third into the NRM DPS, the agency began drafting a wolf management plan in 2006 to prepare for potential state responsibility of gray wolf management following the federal delisting of the species.  The draft plan will undergo scientific peer review this fall, followed by a 90-day public review period in early 2009.  Agency officials plan to finalize the plan in mid-to-late 2009.

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