South Cascades wolf survey, conflict deterrence, relocation study funded by legislature

South Cascades wolf survey, conflict deterrence, relocation study funded by legislature

Conservation Northwest / Apr 10, 2018 / Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

The state legislative session wrapped up in Olympia last month, and included in the budget were three items related to Washington’s wolves.

For more than a decade we’ve been the leading local organization engaged in wolf recovery in Washington, including shaping conservation and management policies through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)’s Wolf Plan and Wolf Advisory Group (WAG), and by working with state lawmakers in Olympia.

Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group meets in Ellensburg in March. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Our Policy Director Paula Swedeen, Ph.D. represents Conservation Northwest in both forums. Paula was busy during the 2018 legislative session advocating for resources to continue supporting ranchers in their use of proactive deterrence measures and for funds to study the presence of wolves in the Cascade Mountains. Paula also informed proposals that would consider whether to translocate (relocate) wolves from northeast Washington into other state-designated Wolf Recovery Zones.

As more ranchers adopt high-quality deterrence measures, and as wolves continue to expand in numbers, its crucial that there are adequate resources to help defray the extra costs for coexistence. This past session we worked with WDFW and legislators to secure an additional $100,000 this biennium, bringing the total amount allocated by the state legislature to support range riding and other non-lethal conflict avoidance measures to $700,000 for 2017-2019.

A big thank you to Representatives Kris Lytton, Joe Fitzgibbon and Joel Kretz as well as Senators Christine Rolfes and Shelly Short for securing this important funding for wolf recovery and coexistence! We will continue to advocate for public funding in future years, as well as look for ways for members of the public to financially support this important work.

Washington’s wolves gain ground

Since wolves began to naturally recolonize Washington in the mid-2000’s, their population has been concentrated mostly in the Columbia Highlands and Kettle Range of northeast Washington, with a few packs confirmed in the North Cascades as well as the Blue Mountains and canyon country of our state’s southeast corner. Wolves have been slower to recolonize the rest of the Cascade Mountains, particularly south of Interstate 90. According to an annual report produced at the end of 2017, no wolf packs have yet been confirmed in this area.

Still, unconfirmed reports of wolves and alleged photos of wolf tracks have filtered in frequently from Washington’s South Cascades in recent years. Potential sightings have been reported from places including the upper Green River watershed, Bumping Lake, White Pass area, and near the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Washington’s confirmed wolf packs at the end of 2017. Map: WDFW

With wildlife crossings being implemented under and over I-90, and terrain that’s generally less-rugged than the North Cascades but still widely conserved through national forests, state wildlife areas, and Mount Rainier National Park, Washington’s South Cascades offer excellent habitat for gray wolves. Elk are widely available, black-tailed deer are common west of the Cascade Crest, mule deer are found in modest numbers on the east side, and an array of turkeys, snowshoe hares and smaller prey species are available.

We are also hopeful that less wolf-livestock conflict may occur in southwest Washington as there are fewer grazing allotments than there are in northeast Washington.

Scat-sniffing detection dogs

To those of us who’ve followed Washington’s wolf comeback, it’s somewhat surprising that wolves have not yet recolonized this seemly rich habitat more than a decade after being confirmed back in the North Cascades. A new study will use innovative methods and the unique skills of another canine to determine if wolves have in fact returned to this wild landscape but so far eluded detection.

With our support in Olympia this session, Conservation Canines, a research program directed by Dr. Samuel Wasser at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, will receive a three-year grant of $172,000 to deploy scat-sniffing dogs to survey for wolf presence in Washington’s South Cascade Mountains. Funding comes from the state General Fund through Washington’s 2018 Supplemental Budget passed by the legislature in March. The program will also study impacts of wolf recolonization on the predator-prey dynamics of species currently inhabiting this area.

A Conservation Canines detection dog and handler in the field. Photo: UW Center for Conservation Biology

Building off the success of specially-trained dogs at sniffing-out narcotics, Dr. Wasser and his team have used rescue pups to locate wildlife scat over large areas since 1997. Once located, scientists extract a wide variety of genetic, physiological, and dietary indicators from scat samples, enabling them to “ascertain species abundance, distribution, resource use, and physiological health all in relation to the environmental pressure(s) the species is encountering”.

The Conservation Canines program has been non-invasively monitoring a diverse array of threatened and endangered species around the world, including, tigers, orcas, fishers, spotted owls, bears, caribou, giant armadillos, giant anteaters, pumas, and jaguars.

We’ve closely followed their work in northeast Washington and other areas, and are excited to see what Dr. Wasser’s team can sniff out in the South Cascades. While WDFW and other agencies already conduct periodic wolf surveys in this area, a lack of resources and the massive scale of the landscape have prevented a more thorough search for wolves. We advocated for this state funding in hopes these amazing dogs might find evidence of their wild cousins that human biologists would ordinarily miss.

Stay tuned—we’ll be reporting on what they find in the South Cascades after the summer field season!

Translocation study proposed

As wolves have recolonized northeast Washington, establishing a minimum of 14 packs across Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry counties as of the end of 2017, some lawmakers have proposed moving wolves to other areas in order to advance progress towards recovery goals outlined in Washington’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan (Wolf Plan).

We were deeply involved in the public process that produced the Wolf Plan in 2011, and believe that it remains an excellent approach with appropriate recovery zones and scientifically-sound recovery goals. These include the agreed-upon benchmark for the state delisting of wolves: “at least 15 successful breeding pairs be present for three consecutive years, with four successful breeding pairs in each of the three recovery regions and three successful breeding pairs anywhere in the state.”

A range rider at work in northeast Washington.

However, we understand that leaders from areas most affected by wolves to date may wish to see greater progress towards recovery goals. One such proposal, House Bill 2771, was put forth in the 2018 legislative session by Representative Joel Kretz, who represents much of northeast Washington.

Translocation to advance wolf recovery is one potential tool outlined in the Wolf Plan, but it must first be evaluated under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process. Conservation Northwest worked with the prime sponsor to amend the bill to emphasize starting the SEPA process for translocation.

While our preference is that wolves continue to disperse to suitable areas of Washington naturally, and we have concerns about public perceptions regarding the government moving wolves to new areas when there is a high likelihood of them dispersing on their own, we empathize with Representative Kretz’s concerns and share his desire to see wolf recovery move forward.

While HB 2771 was not ultimately passed by the state Senate, $183,000 was allocated to WDFW through the 2018 Supplemental Budget to produce an Environmental Impact Statement study on the feasibility of moving gray wolves from Eastern Washington to other areas of the state. We support this research and believe it will help inform Washington’s wolf conservation and management even if translocation of wolves is not ultimately necessary.

A gray wolf on an old road. Photo: WDFW

More information on these budget allocations is also available from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in their April 2, 2018 wolf update. We’ll continue to be involved in wolf policy in Olympia and beyond, and are now turning our attention to the upcoming field season for our Range Rider Pilot Project and other on-the-ground coexistence work. Check back in May for updates on those programs!

Learn more about our work for Washington’s wolves, our Range Rider Pilot Project, and other coexistence efforts!