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By Luke Thompson
YAKIMA, Wash. — The search for wolves in Washington now extends into the south Cascades and Yakima County.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials haven’t yet confirmed a sighting in this region, but statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke believes it could happen soon. He’s eager to investigate citizen reports of lone wolves in the Cowiche area aswell as the Nile Basin north of Yakima, and he encouraged others to share any evidencethey might find.
Those efforts from staff and the general public play a key role in gathering information for the agency’s annual report, which attempts to track wolf behavior and provide population estimates that guide policy decisions. Work began in earnest at the start of 2019, and Maletzke said results should be finalized by the end of March.
“You’re never certain that you saw them all (from) an airplane or that they were all traveling together,” said Maletzke, who’s based in Ellensburg. “You try and get as accurate as you can.”
Techniques include flying and circling over wolves with radio collars, trying to count an entire pack. Other times staff go out to follow tracks on skis and snowmobiles.
Last year’s count found an estimated minimum of 122 wolves in 22 packs with 14 successful breeding pairs, the ninth straight year of population increases with an average growth rate of 30 percent.
Maletzke said agency staff went out over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend to try to put new collars on males in the Teanaway Pack in Kittitas County, by far the closest of any pack to Yakima County. They found only one collared male. As of 2018, the Teanaway Pack had eight members, with one breeding pair.
That population rose high enough for the state to federally take wolves off the endangered species list in the eastern third of Washington in 2011. That move allows the Wildlife Department to kill wolves when they pose a sustained threat to area livestock. Under current law, wolves will remain listed as endangered statewide until they meet certain standards, including at least four successful breeding pairs in the Cascades south of I-90.
A report presented to a state Senate committee on Tuesday by University of Washington professor Samuel Wasser and others showed the results of a survey using dogs to find wolf scat. He said their results showed the population appears to be much higher than the Wildlife Department estimated, although Maletzke noted their numbers represent a minimum and cautioned a higher number could be explained by the timing of the UW study in the summer shortly after breeding season, when more wolves would be on the landscape as compared to the winter.
“There’s a number of reasons why those numbers are probably different,” Maletzke said. “I don’t think it’s a comparable number, necessarily, but I think it’s a good index of where we’re at and where there’s wolves on the landscape.”
Wasser also acknowledged those differences and told the committee he’s working with the Wildlife Department to bring their different methods together to ensure the most reliable estimates possible. Those numbers could prove crucial as the Wildlife Department moves forward with its wolf recovery program and eventually helps craft a new wolf management plan.