Wolves Back in Washington? Howl, Yes

Federal agency preparing a plan to deal with return of packs

Kathy George / Seattle Post-Intelligencer / July 5 , 2004

Wolves are about to return to Washington after decades of absence, and federal regulators have begun drafting a plan for their arrival -- addressing what to do when the howling canids scare people or threaten other animals.

"It's a good thing to be prepared for that," said Doug Zimmer, information specialist for the Western Washington office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"With human tolerance, they (wolves) can exist," he said. "Without it, they can't."

Not since the 1930s has Washington had a viable wolf population. For years, people have reported seeing lone wolves, but no wolf pack is known to exist here.

Now, with a resurgence of wolves near the state's borders with Idaho and Canada, it's just a matter of time before the species naturally migrates here, state and federal wildlife regulators say.

That's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead manager of wolf protection efforts in the Northwest, is starting to draft a long-awaited wolf management plan for Washington, Zimmer said.

A preliminary draft has been written for Eastern Washington, and a meeting is planned next month to discuss broadening that plan to Western Washington, he said, adding, "I'd be very surprised if we don't have it done by next spring."

That news came as a happy surprise to Wolf Haven International, which has been circulating petitions for a statewide wolf plan since 2001. About 3,000 people have signed the petitions.

Without a management plan, "wolves might be unfairly targeted," said Nancy Sparta, Wolf Haven's conservation coordinator. "There's still a lot of misconceptions about wolves attacking humans."

Wolves actually fear people, according to Wolf Haven, which has a wolf sanctuary in Tenino that is open to the public.

Zimmer said there has never been a report of a wolf killing a dog, sheep or other critter -- let alone a person -- in Washington.

Wolves have killed hundreds of cattle and sheep and dozens of dogs in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, where the federally protected predators are bouncing back from near-extinction.

Some Washington legislators, ranchers and others support the killing of wolves when necessary to protect domestic animals.

The state still treats gray wolves as an endangered species, making it illegal to harm them. And for now, there is no proposal to weaken that protection, said Derek Stinson, endangered species biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But federal protection is a different thing.

And as far as the federal government is concerned, wolves are nearing the point where they don't need help to survive.

The federal government already has moved wolves from "endangered" to "threatened" status in the Northwest based on their growing numbers in other states. That change last year allowed ranchers to start killing wolves that are caught attacking livestock -- except in states like Washington with tougher restrictions.

Meanwhile, conservationists have sued to block a proposal to remove wolves from federal species protection altogether.

If that removal happens, Washington's wildlife agency would assume sole responsibility for the wolf's fate in this state.

As it is, Washington is not actively working on wolf recovery and has no plan for managing wolves when they recover here naturally.

Stinson said there is no state plan partly because of more pressing priorities, and also because wolves have yet to reestablish themselves in Washington.

But "it probably won't be long" before wolves from Idaho establish packs here, he said.

When that happens, "I think we'd have to do something," he said. "We may have to identify where we want wolves to be and where we don't want them to be," perhaps steering them away from suburban and rural communities.

Today, nobody knows how many wolves are in Washington.

A federal hot line for wolf sightings gets a few calls a year, but some people probably mistake wolf-dog hybrids for wolves, Zimmer said.

A lone wolf may travel many miles searching for new territory where it can mate and form a new pack.

Federal regulators expect the first new packs in Washington to show up in the North Cascades, where wolf sightings are most common.

Although there is not much livestock there, "we expect interaction with pet dogs," said Zimmer.

"Generally, the dogs are the initial losers, and wolves are the long-term losers."

Wolves are valuable in maintaining natural ecosystems, helping to regulate deer and elk populations. And "they belong here, just like our cougars and bears," Sparta said.

"Washington has lots of really good wolf habitat," said Zimmer.

"If you can protect a large carnivore like that and not kill it, it will come back."