An adult gray wolf looks remote camera in Okanogan County's Methow Valley in Washington in July 2008. Wolves are thriving in Washington, primarily on the eastern side of the Cascade Range. (The Associated Press)
That has sparked conflict because much of the support to bolster the wolf population comes from urban and liberal western Washington, but the negative impacts strike eastern Washington. One solution is for wolves to disperse across the state more quickly, wildlife officials said. "With the densities of wolves in northeastern Washington, we would like to see the Cascades get more wolves and more wolf packs," said Dave Ware, a wolf recovery expert with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Ware believes a few wolves have already moved into the Cascades south of Interstate 90, and even into western Washington, but haven't been conclusively documented yet. Wolves have been spotted by people in Klickitat County, he said.
It remains to be seen how popular the animals will remain if they start showing up on the outskirts of western Washington communities such as Bellingham, Centralia or North Bend.
Past studies in the Great Lakes and Rocky Mountain states show support for wolves declines once people are living among the animals, Ware said.
A statewide survey in 2008, when the state had just one wolfpack, showed 75 percent of Washington residents supported the return of wolves, Ware said. The survey was repeated in 2014 and support had dropped to 64 percent. "Most of the decline was from areas that had wolves," he said.
Wolves were driven to extinction in Washington in the early 1900s by government-sponsored eradication programs on behalf of the livestock industry. The species began to return from neighboring Idaho and British Columbia in the early 2000s.
Rural residents say their counterparts in cities don't understand the realities of living among apex predators, including the danger to the public and livestock. Advocates counter that the state is the native habitat of wolves, and the animals have a positive impact on areas where elk would otherwise destroy grassland.
Wolves have found excellent habitat in Washington, especially in the Selkirk Mountains in the northeast, where most of the state's wolf packs reside.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife released its annual survey of Washington's wolf population.
The survey found that the number of wolves grew by more than 30 percent in 2014, and that four new packs were formed last year. The survey found at least 68 gray wolves living in Washington as of Dec. 31. That was up from a minimum of 52 wolves counted in 2013. The survey also found 16 total wolf packs and at least five successful breeding pairs last year.
Donny Martorello, WDFW carnivore specialist, said the number of packs would have been higher if not for the loss of one last spring.
At least 10 wolves died in 2014. Three were killed by poachers, three died of natural causes, two died of unknown causes, one was hit by a vehicle and a breeding female was shot by a government hunter last summer during an effort by WDFW to stop the Huckleberry Pack from preying on a rancher's sheep.
Attacks on sheep by one pack pushed the number of livestock killed by wolves to a record. Martorello said the Huckleberry Pack accounted for 33 of the 35 sheep killed or injured by wolves and documented by WDFW in 2014. "Conflicts with livestock are bound to rise as the state's wolf population increases, and we have to do everything we can to manage that situation," said Jim Unsworth, WDFW director.
Livestock attacks have prompted some eastern Washington residents to suggest exporting wolves into the western portion of the state.
State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who has 12 of Washington's 16 wolf packs in his district, said you don't have to tell his constituents that wolves are recovering. "While some in western Washington want to protect the wolves at all costs and think they're a good thing, you can have too much of a good thing, and we've definitely had our fair share in northeast Washington," Kretz said.
Under the state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, wolves can be removed from the endangered species list once 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years among the three designated wolf-recovery regions.