As the gray wolf recovers, who are its friends?

The species is back in parts of the state. But can a recovering species return to the Olympic Peninsula?
Crosscut archive image.

A gray wolf in Pend Oreille County, Washington.

The species is back in parts of the state. But can a recovering species return to the Olympic Peninsula?

Gray wolves are back, gliding through the forests of eastern Washington and the Cascades. The Lookout pack is producing pups in the Methow Valley, near Twisp. Seven wolves, an alpha male and female, a yearling and last year's four pups, have been traveling through 350 square miles, eating black-tailed and mule deer primarily, but also munching the occasional muskrat or beaver. Last year, on the banks of the Twisp River, they were seen eating salmon.

The Diamond pack is roaming the northeastern corner of the state, where grizzly bears and mountain caribou also wander down into the Salmo-Priest wilderness. There seem to be wolves in the southeastern corner, across the border from the two packs that have been identified in Oregon's Wallowa Mountain and Hell's Canyon area. Other wolves have been sighted in Mount Rainier National Park, although no one knows whether or not they're hybrids.

Wolves hold a very special badass image in European language and myth. They are seen as voracious ('ꀜwolfing down'ꀝ one's food); unusually predatory (a "wolf whistle" directed at a pretty woman); a metaphor for human aggression ('ꀜThe Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.").

In the West, they have been seen primarily as competition. By running herds of succulent sheep and cattle among the hills and valleys, we have in effect spread a perpetual banquet — and we don't want anyone but ourselves to partake. If anybody else bellies up to the table, he's likely to get shot.

Wolves have been shot and poisoned throughout the West. They are fecund and resilient, but not the way coyotes are. People's attempts to get rid of coyotes have been about as successful as their attempts to get rid of Norway rats. But the final solution largely succeeded with wolves. They were history in Washington by the end of the 1930s. And some of the old anti-predator instincts are alive and well. In a case that hit the press last year, two Twisp ranchers, father and son, may face federal charges for allegedly killing an endangered species and trying to smuggle the hide out of the country. "The investigation began on Dec. 23, 2008," Joyce Campbell described in the Methow Valley News, "when an Omak police officer and a state wildlife agent responded to a complaint from the owner of an Omak FedEx shipping outlet that a package was leaking what appeared to be blood."

There's an image for you. The story continues: a Washingon Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer named Brent Scherzinger "examined the package contents and 'determined it was probably a freshly killed wolf hide,' according to the court document. The shipping label was addressed to an Alberta, Canada, residence. The shipper had declared the item was a rug." And no doubt it would have become one. The U.S. Attorney's office tried to keep the whole thing quiet, but Conservation Northwest figured people should know about it, and made it very public.

Not surprisingly, the gray wolf was a charter member of the federal endangered species list. It was listed by the federal government in 1974, by Washington in 1980. Last year, the feds famously delisted wolves in the northern Rockies, including Montana and Idaho, both of which promptly opened hunting seasons for them.

In much of Washington, the delisting followed north-south Highway 97. The Lookout pack, some 30 miles west of the highway, is still listed. The Diamond pack, farther east, is not.

A coalition of national and regional conservation groups has asked a federal court to vacate the delisting rule and tried and failed to get the court to enjoin the hunts. The judge said the conservationists hadnt proved that a single year of hunting part of the population would cause irreparable harm to the population as a whole. On the other hand, he said that the Endangered Species Act didn't authorize de-listing just part of the population.

Actually, the government had tried to delist all western wolf populations the year before. All of the three main western wolf states, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, had drawn up management plans. Wyoming's was clearly inadequate. The conservationists got an injunction against delisting, and rather than have to defend the indefensible at trial, the government asked for and got a voluntary remand to revise the proposal. When the feds tried again last year, they left Wyoming's wolf population on the list. This decision had clearly owed a lot more to politics than to science. The judge said last year the plaintiffs had demonstrated that they would probably prevail on the merits of the case. Stay tuned.

Part of the rationale for delisting and hunting wolves in Idaho and Montana had been that the gray predators threatened livestock and wild ungulate populations (deer and elk, for example) in both states. But the plaintiffs pointed out in their brief that rules under the Endangered Species Act had permitted harassing, removing, or even killing wolves that attacked or threatened livestock, or that threatened the survival of ungulate populations. An estimated 8 to 14 percent of the wolf population had been culled every year for these reasons.

In addition, virtually all ungulate populations had equalled or exceeded management targets, so the wolves were hardly pushing them into extinction. (Not that this fact mollified some hunters, who resent sharing their own prey with the wolves, and who would rather not have "wild" deer and elk spooked away from easily accessible road corridors.) And the numbers were hardly overwhelming. In 2008, Defenders of Wildlife, which for years has paid ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, paid for 133 dead critters. That's hardly a bovine holocaust.

Have the Methow's newly arrived wolves been chowing down on livestock? Evidently not. A rancher reported seeing wolves devouring a single dead steer there, but by the time people examined the carcass, it was way too old for anyone to tell what had killed it. By and large, the Lookout pack seems to prefer venison. "These wolves have been in and around cattle quite a bit," Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin says. "If cattle were really on their menu," there'd be a lot more conflict.

Elsewhere, the casualty list has been longer. Writing in National Geographic, Douglas Chadwick reports estimates of 569 sheep and cattle killed last year; notes that if you don't find the carcass quickly, scavengers may destroy the evidence; and explains that wolves change livestock behavior. Looking over their shoulders for predators, cattle and sheep eat less than they otherwise would; they also feel increased stress, which raises the likelihood of stillborn calves.

Conservation Northwest executive director Mitch Friedman, who has worked hard to get wolves accepted in Washington state, suggests that these behavioral changes are the real issue. Just paying ranchers for confirmed wolf kills won't solve the problem. Perhaps, Friedman suggests, ranchers should be compensated not only for the loss of animals, but also for lack of weight gain.

On the other hand, he wonders, if you're going to look at the situation comprehensively, "how do you factor in that the presence of wolves means less predation and harassment by coyotes?" And then one can get into philosophical questions: "We don't get compensated for the weather," Friedman notes. "Are wolves any less natural than weather? It's a really slippery slope."

Friedman thinks it's significant that the ranchers who allegedly tried shipping the bloody wolf hide into Canada haven't been viewed as martyrs. Even in the Methow, though, people are divided about the prospect of sharing their territory with wolves. There's no doubt that much of the larger society wants to know the wolves are out there and possibly wants the opportunity to see them every now and then.

There's also no doubt that people raising sheep or cattle in the western mountains figure they have enough trouble making a living without adding another predator to the mix. To some extent, this is the familiar conflict of values and interests between the broader public that owns public lands and the narrower public that happens to live right next door.

But it is a mistake to see it entirely as a conflict between economic reality and green sentimentality. The desire to see wolves translates into cold cash. One study has found that people who visit Yellowstone primarily to see wolves pump $35 million a year into the local economy. And Chadwick notes some ranchers realize that : a) the broader public likes wolves; b) the broader public buys their beef; so c) they'd better find a way to live with wolves.

Restoring wolves to much of the state requires little more than the prescription in Little Bo Beep: "just leave them alone and they'll come home." Gray wolves were deliberately re-introduced into Yellowstone and central Idaho, but the wolves that have been seen and collared in the Methow and the northeastern corner of the state evidently just walked right in.

Neither the Diamond pack in the northeast nor the Lookout pack in the Methow is related to those wolves that were reintroduced into central Idaho, Fitkin says. DNA testing suggests that the Diamond wolves walked in from Alberta or northwestern Montana, and the Lookout wolves came down from the Coast Range of British Columbia.

Why did they wind up in the Methow? Presumably, Fitkin says, they followed the protected spine of the North Cascades down from B.C. and settled on the east side, where the big deer population made the living relatively easy. As far back as the mid-1980s, he says, people reported seeing wolf tracks in the mud beside Ross Lake when the lake was drawn down, and hearing howls in the area near Hozomeen campground. The track sightings became "almost an annual event." By the early '90s, people were sighting wolves regularly in the upper Twisp valley. In 2008, it became clear that the Lookout pack was producing pups.

No one expect wolves to recolonize the Olympic Mountains on their own. Largely surrounded by water, the Olympic Peninsula functions as an island. Species don't wander into it. A couple of centuries ago, they might have, given enough time, but these days, wolves aren't likely to cross the miles of clearcuts, fenced yards and freeways, and shopping malls that lie between the base of the peninsula and the Cascades.

People would have to deliberately put wolves back into the Olympics, and that is a controversial proposition. No one has gotten worked up about reintroducing 90 weasel-like fishers over the past three winters, but the wolf would be a different story — even though a recent study suggests that a lack of wolves has changed the shapes of Olympic rivers for the worse. Without pressure from wolves or human hunters for the past century or so, the park's elk have eaten down young maples and cottonwoods along the river banks. The banks have eroded, and relatively narrow river channels have spread out; in some cases single channels have become braided.

The group that created the state's draft wolf management plan, which will be approved this year, started with a couple of key assumptions: having no wolves was not an option, but neither was importing wolves. (Friedman notes that at this point, the problem isn't wolf management, it's people management.)

Nevertheless, some people hope a management plan that leaves the Olympics wolfless isn't a done deal. A group of Washington legislative and other community leaders has 'ꀜurge[d] the Washington Department of Wildlife to adopt a final plan that includes scientifically based numbers and calls for distribution throughout the state including the Olympic Peninsula.'ꀝ Signers include Senator Ed Murray, Representatives Reuven Carlyle and Ross Hunter, a host of other legislators, plus represenatives of local and tribal governments and non-profit groups. They note the economic benefits of having wolves in Yellowstone and the environmental costs of not having them in the Olympics. "Returning wolves to (overgrazed Olympic river bank) environments," they suggest, may "return (them) to a more natural balance.'ꀝ

Significantly, most of the legislators represent urban constituencies. Can the wolf find a broader base of support?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.