By Scott Sandsberry
YAKIMA, Wash. -- It’s mid-December, which makes it just about the most important time of the year when it comes to the people who monitor the state’s wolves.
Grizzlies being too rare to make much of a dent in Washingtonians’ collective consciousness, gray wolves are unparalleled as the state’s most controversial predator and will remain so until recovery goals are met.
Which makes the next several weeks critical to the state’s wolf management program for two reasons:
1) Snow cover makes it easier to locate, survey and monitor wolves.
“With snow, it’s a lot easier to identify tracks than it is on a hard-packed road with 10,000 people that have driven across it,” said Scott Becker, one of the state’s two statewide wolf biologists.
“And we’re also busy in the summertime, because we have traps on the ground” in areas of wolf activity, in order to put more radio collars on more wolves. “That kind of limits where we can go, because we have to check those every day. In the wintertime, we can get out and actually try to follow them.”
2) The end of the year is when wolf surveys are done to determine the number of wolves and wolf packs — and, more importantly, the number of breeding pairs.
While gray wolves have been removed from federal protection in the eastern one-third of Washington, they will remain state-listed as endangered until recovery goals established by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are met.
Those goals call for 15 successful breeding pairs present for at least three years, including at least four in each of three regions — Eastern Washington, Northern Cascades and Southern Cascades/Northwest Coast.
“And that count is based on what’s there at the end of the calendar year,” said WDFW spokeswoman Madonna Luers. “A successful breeding pair means a male and female traveling together with two pups, at the end of the year. The pups are born in April, May and June, and you could have eight pups — but are any left at the end of the year?”
November’s discovery of a new pack in Okanogan County’s Loup Loup area — between Okanogan to the east and Twisp to the west — upped the total of confirmed packs in the state to 17, comprising an estimated 65 to 70 total wolves.
A pack, though, can mean as few as two wolves traveling together. And the two members of one of those 17 packs, the Wenatchee, haven’t been seen in more than a year and may simply have died, moved on or joined with another pack, such as the Teanaway.
And to date, there are no confirmed wolf packs in the state’s third wolf-management region, the Southern Cascades/Northwest Coast, which includes south-central Washington south of Interstate 90, southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula.
While 17 packs may sound like a lot, the number of successful breeding pairs is a different story entirely.
“The number of packs doesn’t play into that dynamic at all, because reproduction is a better indicator of long-term sustainability,” said Scott Fitkin, a Winthrop-based state wildlife biologist. “We identify packs and publish that because it gives you an idea of where packs are setting up, and a pack still may have a territorial boundary.
“But ultimately, in terms of the status changes, it’s the breeding that counts.”
And there simply isn’t enough of that going on within the state’s wolves.
Based on last winter’s wolf surveys, 11 packs did not have a confirmed breeding pair.
Only four of the 12 packs in the northeast corner of the state — the Carpenter Ridge, Goodman Meadows, Huckleberry and Profanity Peak packs — had a breeding pair with at least two pups. The Tucannon Pack in the Blue Mountains does not have a breeding pair, while the Teanaway pack does.
The Lookout Pack, the first Washington pack to be confirmed (2008), has had a breeding pair — possibly off-and-on — but it has not been successful of late. The pups born in 2014 are believed to have all perished in that year’s Carlton Complex Fire. A collar put in the breeding female early this summer has not operated since Oct. 20, either because of her death or the collar simply malfunctioning.
That made last month’s discovery of the Loup Loup Pack — with video footage by Okanogan photographer/tracker David Moskowitz that showed both adult wolves and at least two pups, possibly three — so important.
“It was a good find,” said Moskowitz, who has been working with Conservation Northwest on a project to detect wolves and other “rare and sensitive carnivores” south of Interstate 90 but was putting out trail cameras at likely spots in the Loup Loup as a personal project.
“Detecting wildlife and documenting wildlife is like fishing: You have to cast a lot until you get something you’re excited about. But if you keep casting, you’re going to get something, if you’re fishing in the right spot.”
Okanogan County, with the Lookout Pack already existing in the western portion of the county, was a likely spot for another pack.
“It has a few elk, but it’s basically the same as the rest of the county — a mule deer and white-tail (deer) mix, more mulies than white-tail,” said Fitkin, who added that despite the county’s significant wildfires over the last two summers and autumns, last year’s mild winter helped the survival rate of the local deer populations.
“We did not have a collar on (any members of) the Lookout Pack, so when these reports on the eastern side of the Methow River started showing up, we didn’t know if these were wolves from the Lookout Pack moving across the river.
“The original Lookout territory had expanded somewhat to the south with new animals, and then the question became, well, did they shift to the east? We didn’t know — no collared animals.”
After biologists early last summer collared a Lookout Pack female — the one whose collar went “off the air” on Oct. 20 — at no time did she ever go east of the river.
“And that’s the breeding female. They’re the ones who are going to be confining their movements to their territory, for the most part,” Fitkin said. “So she never went over there, and we’ve got five or six animals at a minimum in this other area” — based on Moskowitz’s video footage this autumn.
“That’s a different pack.”