Tips for hiking in wolf country

Tips for hiking in wolf country

Conservation Northwest / Aug 01, 2014 / Recreation, Wolves

While tense encounters can happen, Washington’s wild canines pose no serious threat to humans on the trail

Related post: July 2018: Understanding wolf behavior—for your safety and theirs

The Pacific Northwest is hiker central, with hundreds of trails from the Olympic coast to the Cascades and Columbia Highlands. With thousands of people hitting the hills each year, information abounds for coexisting safely in the backcountry with our region’s regular cast of wildlife; from hungry black bears to curious cougars and salt-craved mountains goats.

But what about Washington’s recovering wolves?

Though still rare, gray wolves migrating from British Columbia, Idaho and Oregon have made a natural resurgence in Washington since the mid-2000’s. In 2016, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are at least 90 wolves in 18 wolf packs. Wildlife managers note that the actual number of wolves in the state is likely higher than those confirmed by the survey. These confirmed packs range from the Smackout and Salmo packs of remote Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, to the Lookout and Teanaway packs in the Cascades, to the Tucannon Pack in the Blue Mountains near the border with northeast Oregon.

But as wolves continue to recolonize their native range in the Pacific Northwest, hikers, campers and backpackers should take comfort that while usual wildlife precautions are recommended and pets should be kept under a watchful eye as tense encounters can happen, these wild canines pose no serious threat to humans.

Larger and broader than the much more common coyote, wolves are intelligent, wary and have a substantial fear of people. They can often hear or smell us coming from miles away, making close encounters on the trail extremely rare.

Even in areas like Alaska and Minnesota with much healthier wolf populations, dangerous encounters with wolves are almost nonexistent.

In the past 100 years in North America, there have been only two fatal wolf attacks on humans; one in remote western Alaska and one in northern Canada. The one confirmed wolf attack in the Lower 48 in recent decades, a nonlethal (for the human) incident in Minnesota, involved a lone wolf with a badly deformed jaw that would have prevented it from hunting natural prey.

With their limited numbers and cautious nature, the chance of encountering one of Washington’s wolves is very low. The chance for a dangerous encounter is even lower. But when recreating in the Cascades, Blue Mountains or Columbia Highlands, hikers should stay alert and take similar precautions to hiking in bear or cougar country.

If you see a wolf

If you do encounter a wolf or a pack on the trail, the range, or on rural property, stay calm, use caution and keep children and pets close. Wolves have been known to react to dogs as competition or unwelcome visitors in their territory, so the last point is especially important.

Like any large or potentially dangerous animal, make sure the wolf has an escape route. More than likely it will quickly exit the scene. 

Wolves, especially pups and yearlings, are known to be very curious. Just like cougars sometimes follow hikers, wolves have been documented briefly following or circling hikers or other recreationists. But experts say this behavior is almost always based on curiosity, not predatory interest or aggression.

If the wolf or wolves do not immediately depart, stand tall and DO NOT RUN. If you feel threatened, shout, wave and clap your hands, and slowly back away if possible.  If a wolf or wolves approaches, throw branches or other objects close at hand, ideally without bending down, and prepare to deploy bear spray if needed.

With more than 25,000 black bears and a handful of grizzly bears in Washington, hikers, hunters and other recreationists in all parts of our state should be traveling with this powerful pepper spray at easy reach in a belt holster or outside pocket. Products like Counter Assault spray are an effective deterrent for any large mammal at close range, from bears to wolves and aggressive bull elk.

And don’t forget, knowing how to properly use bear spray is just as important as carrying it!

Keeping a clean camp

Campers in wolf country should always keep a clean camp, particularly as wolf country is almost always black bear country as well. Food, trash and other fragrant items should be hung or stored in bear safe canisters at least 100 yards from sleeping areas, and campers should cook and eat a fair distance from where they’ll be pitching tents.

The greatest risk from wolves comes from wolf-dog hybrids or wild wolves that have become habituated to feeding from garbage or otherwise lost their fear of humans. But once again, these instances are exceedingly rare, with few confrontations in North America compared to the hundreds of thousands of hospital visits every year from domestic dogs.

Native gray wolves are a key component of our region’s natural landscape, a predator that flourished in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years until organized trapping, hunting and poisoning campaigns drove them to the brink.

We should be proud that the wildness of our state has allowed wolves to recover naturally here. Instead of recreating in fear, hikers, backpackers, climbers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts should be well informed and excited to share the mountains with these native canines, and enjoy a landscape made wilder by their presence.

And be sure to keep that camera ready for the fleeting chance you see a wolf crossing a far off meadow and disappearing into the timber, or hear the mournful call of the wild as a pack howls at sunset.

Any wolf sightings or encounters in Washington should be reported to WDFW using the following form to help the management of wolves in our state:

Photos of wolves, wolf tracks or scat are helpful evidence to verify such sightings.