OUTDOORS: Wolves are native to Olympics, but not likely to return

BIOLOGISTS WORKING ON wolf management may be in the same kind of no-win situation as their counterparts in salmon management.

That’s my takeway from taking in an Olympic National Park Perspectives Speaker Series presentation on wolves in Washington by state Department of Fish and Wildlife Wolf Coordinator Julia Smith earlier this week at the Port Angeles Library.

There’s so much misinformation and lack of trust — from those who would love to see wolves continue their recolonization of the western U.S. and those worried about what they view as declining elk and deer populations, particularly in the central and northeast portions of this state.

People have their camps, for or against the animals.

I’m not advocating either way — I take the same neutral stance as when I cover the Sequim High School sporting variety.

So no, I’m not going to wade into the dark and murky waters of their impact (real or perceived) on livestock ranches and ungulate populations or whether it’s ethical for Fish and Wildlife to cull packs that are documented to be preying on cattle and other farm animals.

Feel free to have those arguments online.

I would offer that attempting to tag and place tracking collars on the entirety of the state’s wolf population could provide useful information for biologists, hunters, ranchers and animal lovers.

Tribal culture, bounties paid

Wolves are a native species to the Olympic Peninsula, this can’t be denied. There is ample evidence — from the presence of a word for wolves in numerous area tribal languages to Makah wolf dances and handcrafted wolf masks long used in tribal ceremonies.

Smith said there are 69 documented wolf references between 1890 and 1975 — sightings, indiviual reports and bounty records from the Clallam County Auditors Office.

Records exist of 46 bounties paid for wolves in Clallam County between 1906 and 1929.

Smith said the last two documented wolves were killed in 1920 near the Quinault River. Not sure what to make of that nine-year gap between the last wolves and bounties paid by the county, but a big coyote can be hard for some to tell apart from a wolf.

Many believe wolves were intentionally re-introduced into Washington state.

Smith said the packs that have set up shop in our state and Oregon came from a federal reintroduction in Idaho in 1995 and have migrated westward to find habitat.

“Wolves were never re-introduced into Washington,” Smith said. “They naturally came back on their own after being brought back to Idaho in 1995. Wolves have dispersed into Washington and Oregon.”

Smith said Washington and Oregon wolves are part of a 1,700-strong population spread across the Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Canada and are “not a separate and distinct population.”

Wolves are slowly moving west in the state, however.

Smith said the first pack found west of the Cascade Mountains, the Diobsud Creek Pack, was confirmed in 2018. This pack contained a minimum of two non-breeding wolves entering 2019.

Statewide, Smith said wolf numbers had grown from five to 126 wolves in the last 10 years.

The number of packs has grown from one pack to 27 and from one breeding pair to 15 in that time.

She said the growth rate has slowed in recent years as the wolf population has grown there is less habitat for them to expand, particularly in Eastern Washington.

And she pegged the percentage of depredating packs, those wolves that attack livestock, at around 20 percent of all packs.

Up to the wolves

As for the return of wolves to the Olympic Peninsula? It’s up to the species itself.

There have been attempts to return wolves to Olympic National Park in the past.

Smith brought up a 1935 National Park Service plan, a formal study conducted by Evergreen State College students in 1975 and even more formal analyses completed in 1999 and 2004.

A 2004 feasbility study concluded that, no surprise, the Olympic Peninsula would provide “great habitat for wolves.”

Smith said there are no plans for the state to bring back wolves to the Olympic Peninsula.

But she’s studied the species for years and wouldn’t underestimate their ability to adapt.

“Never say never and it’s not about reintroduction but about the carnivores themselves,” Smith said. “Wolves are a highly adaptable species — I’ve studied wolves for years and they teach me what I don’t know all the time.

She cautioned that it would take a pretty dedicated effort to make it this far west.

“It would be hard for them to get back to the Peninsula naturally,” Smith said. “The presence of the I-5 corridor, very developed areas, Puget Sound — there are many barriers to restrict them coming back naturally on their own.”

To watch the presentation, visit tinyurl.com/PDN-WolvesInWA2020.

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Sports reporter/columnist Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected].

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