Officials: Scattered Reports Don’t Equal Confirmation
Posted: Thursday, May 7, 2015
Scott Becker knows firsthand about the emotions surrounding wolves and their integration into the landscape of the American West.
People tell him on a regular basis.
“We get lots of calls about them, and anyone you meet all want to tell you their opinions on wolves,” he said. “... Wildlife management is vicariously people management.”
Although he’s on the other side of the Cascades, the department gave him contact information as if he were based out of Olympia.
It’s something the locals notice.
“I work with wolves and I have the Olympia phone number. With people in Eastern Washington, that doesn’t go over very well,” he said.
Becker is a wolf specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife based in Wenatchee. His job is to study the animals and monitor their populations as they move around the state.
Currently, he’s working with teams of biologists in Northeast Washington who are actively trapping wolves and fixing them with radio collars.
At the end of 2014, Washington state was home to a minimum estimate of 68 individual wolves living in 16 confirmed packs. In the western two-thirds of the state, the gray wolf is federally listed as an endangered species, but not in the east. The majority of them live close to the borders with Canada and Idaho; but wolves are on the move.
Last week, an individual female was found dead on Snoqualmie Pass, and in January a new wolf was spotted in Southwest Oregon. Recently, on Facebook, someone generated interest after reporting a wolf sighting on White Pass.
When someone reports seeing a wolf to the WDFW, the location is tagged on a map, which the department posts online. The sightings around the state are numerous, and several of them are in and around Lewis County, but that doesn’t mean Becker or his team are going to drive over.
He said the department waits for several simultaneous reports to come from a small area before they’ll investigate.
“We’re not going to jump and just run out there every time people believe they see a wolf. If they have a picture, we probably would,” he said. “Wolves aren’t subtle creatures. If they’re around, people are going to know and see a lot of signs.”
Becker prefers not to offer a timeline for when he thinks wolves will cross the mountains and move into Southwest Washington. But with its largely rural and forested ecosystems and large populations of wild game, the area would make good habitat for them.
“They’ll come when they come, but even with all our attempts to document them, they may already be there,” he said.
Before he came to Washington, Becker spent 18 years in Wyoming as a biologist on trophy animals such as moose and grizzly bears. He ended up working as a wolf specialist for the state and federal governments when wolves were delisted in Wyoming and the state drafted management plans for the species.
“Washington isn’t any different compared to what Montana and Wyoming went through,” he said. “The sentiments are exactly the same.”
Depending on where you live and the stake you claim, wolves can be seen as nothing but a cost that impacts livelihoods and challenges your way of life; or they’re a key predator that ultimately leads to a lusher, more diverse ecosystem.
The task for WDFW is balancing those two often competing interests.
“Like people may enjoy elk up in the landscape, but when they come into town and start eating people’s rose bushes, the acceptance is much less,” he said.
When wolves eat people’s livestock, that acceptance drops significantly. Becker said depredation of farm animals is a reality that is unavoidable, but he said the majority of wolves in Washington state don’t run into trouble with humans.
“Last year in the Northern Rockies, 17 percent of known packs caused depredations while the other 83 percent did not. The year before, 20 percent caused depredations while the other 80 percent did not,” he later wrote in an email.
“Most wolves simply act like wolves should and don’t cause any problems, but there is a relatively small proportion that do get into trouble every year no matter what we humans do.”