Pack territories: A wolf’s “neighborhood” and how they use it

Think about your neighborhood. We all tend to have a certain area around our home and the places that we work that we utilize more than others. Maybe you stop at a regular grocery store on the way home from work. Or the kids have a favorite park where they like to play in your community. You have a regular gym that you go to because it’s closest to your house or a neighborhood gas station that you frequent due to its proximity and convenience. If you are like many people, you have a range of a certain number of miles from your home or work that you mostly travel within because you can access all the services and recreation you require within an acceptable range of miles. And, of course, there are times when you leave that area.

Wolves are similar in that individual packs, or families, also have a “territory” that they travel around and maintain. The difference between wolves’ and humans’ territory though is that in most human neighborhoods, neighbors or visitors are welcome while in wolf pack territory, there is generally only one pack or family per territory. Wolf territories can have den sites within them where they birth and raise their young and rendezvous sites where young pups play under adult supervision until they are old enough to hunt and travel with the pack. What dictates other features of a territory, such as size, is that it must be large enough to have enough prey to support the nutritional needs of a pack but small enough be able to defend the boundary from other packs.

Wolf pack territories in Washington State

Washington had a minimum of 206 wolves in 33 packs, according to the 2021 annual year-end wolf count. WDFW defines a wolf pack as two or more wolves traveling together in the winter. Each of those packs has a unique territory. In Washington, the average (mean) territory size is 193 square miles, but territory sizes vary greatly, from an estimated 21 to 434 square miles. Some pack home ranges are based on telemetry information from a collared wolf in that pack (represented by a polygon), while others on the map show a typical wolf home range size if there is not a collar deployed in that pack (represented by a circle).

However, wolf pack areas are not as clearly defined as shapes on a map may indicate. Territory shifts can occur seasonally or year to year. Throughout the West, this shifting of pack territories is seen especially in areas where humans cause wolf mortality, which in turn causes territories to shift as neighboring wolves move into territories abandoned or devoid of former packs. In some instances, neighboring territories may overlap. But while the same area may be used by multiple packs, use will not occur at the same time. And although many packs are centered on large blocks of public lands, many packs in Washington utilize a mix of public and private lands, with some packs spending time almost entirely on private land.

Land ownership in the Stranger Pack Territory in northeast Washington

For instance, the Stranger Pack territory, in Stevens County in the Eastern Washington wolf recovery region (see map below), covers approximately 240 square miles of which 79% of that pack territory is private property. Most of these properties are made up of large blocks (hundreds of acres) of private industrial timberlands and privately owned homes on between 5 and 15-acre parcels. This pack territory has an abundance of white-tailed deer, some mule deer, and moose.

Wolf recovery zones in Washington State

At the end of 2021, the Stranger Pack had a documented four members during the annual wolf count. A little over six months later, five pups were caught on a game camera in this territory in July 2022.

In northeast Washington, packs like Stranger are limited in how large they can grow due to available territory. The area is known for being ideal wolf territory- remote and with rough, steep and densely forested terrain in many areas- so the majority of the wolves in the state live in this area. You could say northeast Washington is at, or very close to, carrying capacity for wolves and wolf packs. This concept was written about in a 2019 blog post; How long will Washington’s wolf population continue to grow?

Just like wolf pack numbers aren’t static, neither are wolves themselves. Packs and individual wolves travel widely across their territory. At any one time during the year, about 10% to 15% of wolves in a population are on the move, searching for a new pack territory. Sometimes they can travel hundreds of miles in search of vacant territory or another pack they can join.

In contrast, to the Stranger Pack, the Loup Loup Pack in Okanogan County, in the Northern Cascades wolf recovery region, resides almost exclusively on public land managed by the Department of Natural Resources and the United States Forest Service. The pack had seven members at the end of 2021 and their territory is approximately 434 square miles. This pack may require a larger area due to the fact that it is mostly a mule deer system with only some moose and white-tailed deer, therefore they likely have to roam a larger area to locate prey.

The Carpenter Ridge wolf pack straddles the Pend Oreille and Stevens County line in northeast Washington in the Eastern Washington wolf recovery zone. This territory covers roughly 165 square miles and is located primarily on private industrial timber land. The pack was observed to have four members at the end of 2021. This pack territory overlaps an abundance of moose, mule deer, and white-tailed deer.

A crew works to capture and collar a wolf from the Carpenter Ridge pack.

The Columbia Pack in southeast Washington, also in the Eastern Washington wolf recovery zone but at the opposite end of the zone from the Carpenter Ridge Pack, is one of the state’s newest wolf packs, having been confirmed as a pack at the end of 2021. This pack had approximately five wolves at the end of 2021 on primarily on large private properties, mostly grazing lands. This pack’s territory covers approximately 45 square miles. The Columbia Pack overlaps an area with abundant white-tailed deer, elk, mule deer, and an occasional moose which likely allows them to utilize a smaller territory.

The size of a territory determines the type and abundance of prey a pack has available to it, which in turn influences how large a pack can be; in other words, the carrying capacity of an area. Although Washington has a large percentage of public lands, including wildlife areas managed by WDFW that are literally managed for wildlife, private lands are critical to wolf recovery as well. Private property owners can play an important role in wolf recovery by providing habitat for and stewarding wildlife, including wolves, whose home range needs may depend on it.

By WDFW studying and understanding the home ranges of wolf packs in Washington, we can estimate progress toward reaching wolf recovery objectives, partner with landowners to conserve and manage habitat in a way that continues to be beneficial for wolves and ungulates and predict distribution to mitigate wolf-livestock conflicts in the future.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.