Wolves started making Washington their home again around 2008, after being extirpated from the state by the early 1900s. Since their return, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has been capturing and collaring a sample of these animals to monitor their survival, reproduction, movements, and recovery in Washington.
Most people are not familiar with how capturing and collaring wolves is done, or how challenging it can be. There are two methods WDFW use to catch wolves- trapping and aerial darting from a helicopter. Trapping is usually done in the spring and early summer when temperatures are moderate and wolves’ movements tend to be localized around a den or rendezvous site. Biologists check traps often, but even so, a wolf in a trap can be harmed by extreme hot or cold temperatures in a short time. As a result, biologists closely monitor traps to minimize injury to captured wolves and only trap in spring and fall if possible.
Captures by helicopter can be done any time of the year but are most successful with fresh snow on the ground. The annual wolf count is conducted in winter because wolf populations experience the least amount of natural fluctuation during this time. Counting the population at the end of each year allows for comparable year-to-year trends at a time of year when the wolf population is most stable.
Because the annual count is underway right now, this post focuses on captures and collaring conducted by helicopter.
During January and sometimes into February or early March each year, flights are scheduled in areas of known wolf packs. In packs where there is already one wolf collared, biologists can use the tracking signal from that collar to find the other members of the pack.
A lot of work and prep goes into capturing wolves from the air. Staff need to prepare a flight plan well in advance, check collars to make sure they are functioning correctly, and assemble a kit of all the supplies needed to collar and collect biological data from the captured wolves.
On the day of the flights, the doors on one side of the helicopter are removed to give the pilot better visibility and the biologists a clear shot with a tranquilizer dart. With no doors on the helicopter, it’s a chilly ride, so biologists bundle up in several layers of clothes to keep warm. They top off the layers with a fire-resistant flight suit as a safety precaution.
Sedative darts are prepared and equipment is loaded into the small helicopter. With all that done, it’s lift off time.
The pilot flies the helicopter over the mountainous terrain, flying up and over tall peaks and down into valleys, until a wolf or wolves are spotted. Once the crew has a visual on the animals, the pace picks up.
The pilot does some fancy maneuvering at high speeds and low elevations, often at a level just above the height of the tree canopy, to keep up with the animals.
While this rough ride is going on, biologists are trying to get a clear shot at the wolf with a tranquilizer dart. With no doors on the helicopter, they are harnessed to the aircraft to keep from falling out as they lean out to get a shot. On the trip shown in the photo below, the dart hit its mark on the first try, which is a major feat considering the conditions.
While the sedative takes effect, the pilot continues to follow the moving animal. Once the wolf lies down, it can be a challenge finding a clearing big enough to lower the helicopter into some of the dense wooded areas where wolves live. The two biologists unload their equipment and make their way to the wolf through snow that is several feet deep. This, and the many layers of clothing they wear, makes the going slow.
Once the biologists reach the wolf, time is of the essence to “work up” the wolf as efficiently as possible to minimize the impact of the capture. A blindfold is placed over the wolf’s eyes to calm it, blood is drawn to document its health and DNA, and it is fitted with a tracking collar that is programmed to drop off after a set number of years. The collar indicating emits signals allowing biologists to locate it. If it stops moving, biologists know that the animal has either died or the collar has fallen off and they can retrieve it and investigate. Next, ear tags are attached so the wolf can be identified if recaptured in the future after the collar comes off.
The wolf’s body is examined for injuries and general condition, it is weighed using a sling and mobile scale, and its teeth are examined to determine age and health.
The animal is then measured from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail and given a topical antibiotic to prevent potential infection from being darted. As this work wraps up, the sedative is starting to wear off and the wolf begins moving its head and legs more. Biologists aren’t worried about the animal being aggressive as it comes out of sedation; as with most wild animals, wolves are more intent on getting away from humans rather than attacking them.
About 45 minutes after first darting a wolf, the biologists have all their equipment packed up and are traversing the deep snow back to the helicopter.
From there, the process starts all over again as the pilot and biologists look for more wolves or move to a different area of the state to do the same. There are currently 35 wolves collared in 16 packs across Washington state. Collared wolves help WDFW understand pack movements, their habitat use, and their proximity to livestock operations. Collar information may be shared with other government entities to inform their management, and WDFW also currently enters into agreements with livestock producers and range riders to share wolf locations to help prevent wolf-livestock conflicts. In some instances, a collared wolf in the pack may disperse to another area or establish a new pack. Having the collar data in these instances is incredibly helpful to help us track the recovering population.
Collars allow wildlife agencies a unique window into the world of wolves, informing biologists and providing information for decision making to aid wolf conservation, management, and recovery in Washington.