On the move with Washington’s wolves
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) gets reports of wolf sightings on a regular basis. Some people send us photos asking if a set of tracks are from a wolf, dog, or coyote; some people call our offices to report that they saw an animal they suspect is a wolf; and many people use our wolf reporting portal to let us know that they believe they have seen a wolf, or sign of one.
The locations of reports that come into that portal are placed on a map on the same page. Looking at that map, you can see that there are literally hundreds of reports of possible wolf sightings across the state, many of them in areas without confirmed wolf packs. These reports — especially when multiple reports come in from an area where there isn’t already a confirmed pack — help biologists to track wolf activity and know when new packs might be establishing territories in new areas. Unfortunately, WDFW doesn’t have enough staff to investigate every wolf sighting so the reports on this map are not confirmed for the most part, but biologists do pay attention when sightings seem credible, or when a pattern starts to arise.
When that happens, a biologist will generally check out the area and talk with people who live, work or recreate in areas where multiple wolf reports have been submitted. There have been cases where a wolf sighting has been reported, or someone found tracks or scat, and biologists have been able to confirm that a wolf is definitely present. While that may indicate to some people that wolves have moved into an area, it isn’t necessarily the case. More often than not, a wolf may just be passing through.
Wolves can travel up to thirty miles per day and it’s not unusual for them to leave their territory and roam for hundreds of miles. For instance, a wolf collared with a satellite tracking collar dispersed from the Huckleberry pack in northeast Washington in 2016 and traveled over 700 miles, in just a couple months, to Eastern Montana. The blue line in the map below shows its’ travels.
Wolves within a pack often travel widely around their large territories which average about 320 square miles. While many people think of a pack staying together all the time, it is fairly common for a wolf to take off on its’ own or travel with just a single other pack mate. Sometimes individual wolves leave their home territory for days or weeks then return to the pack after doing a little exploring. And sometimes, lone wolf dispersers don’t return to the pack at all but seek a new territory and, eventually, a mate or new pack members. As you can see from the map below, from 2020, it is very common for wolves to disperse. It is also the way that natural recolonization occurs. Wolves in Washington were established by similar dispersing wolves from Canada and neighboring states.
At any given time (although there may be more wolves moving around during certain seasons), roughly 10% to 15% of Washington’s wolf population could be outside of their territories and dispersing through other areas. If a wolf is collared with a GPS tracking collar, we can follow their travels and know they are on the move, but the majority of wolves aren’t collared, meaning that we only document a fraction of the dispersal that is actually occurring.
With all this movement happening, how do we get an accurate picture of how many wolves are in the state, and where? The annual wolf count is underway now. During the count, biologists use a variety of methods and tools to get an idea how many wolves are in the state. They use game cameras and count wolves from the images captured; use snowmobiles and snowshoes to access remote areas to look for wolf sign and take to the sky in small planes or helicopters to count and possibly capture and collar wolves.
The annual count is conducted in winter because that’s when the population is at its lowest point of the year. Wolf pups have a high mortality rate, ranging from about 30% to 60%. Pups die from disease, malnutrition, vehicle collisions, and starvation in the wild. In the early months of the year, the pups that aren’t going to survive until the upcoming denning season have usually already perished. That makes the wolves counted in the Department’s survey the best count of wolves that are going to contribute to population growth in the upcoming year.
Wolf population numbers are at their lowest around March or April, then expand significantly (and can potentially even double) around mid-April and May as the year’s batch of young are born. The population will then gradually decline again as those pups and other wolves die off.
Winter is also an easier time to detect tracks in snow and, when searching from the air, to see wolves on a background of snow. In the spring, summer, and fall, wolves can blend in with surrounding foliage.
We welcome the help of members of the public in obtaining an accurate count. You can help by letting us know if you see wolf sign or wolves. Our wolf reporting portal allows you to upload photos, video, and audio as well. A hint that makes our lives a lot easier if you do attach photos- please include something in your photos for scale. We get a lot of photos from people asking if a footprint or scat is from a wolf, but without something to compare it to size-wise it is very difficult to tell the difference between coyote, domestic dog or wolf sign. Anything you have on you at the time helps- a pocketknife, a dollar bill, a phone, just something that gives a general idea of size. Also, some context clues help as well. Include information such as where were these tracks going or where did they come from and were there human tracks nearby.
When all the data is gathered and analyzed and the count completed, biologists will have covered thousands of miles of ground and reviewed hundreds of trail camera photos. They will have spent hours compiling data and will present a report and presentation to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission of the results in the spring. That meeting will be posted on our website and members of the public are welcome to watch the presentation as well.
All this information helps us, and the citizens of Washington, track progress towards recovery goals (as detailed in the Gray wolf conservation and management plan) for wolves in the state. Knowing where wolves are present also helps us focus on efforts such as wolf-livestock co-existence and understanding interactions between wolves and other species in the ecosystem. After almost a century of not having wolves in our state, there is still much to be learned about them, and WDFW’s annual count is a good start toward that.