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Seven things all Washington residents should know about wolves

Many of us grew up in a time when wolves weren’t present in Washington. Because their return is relatively new, you may be less familiar with these animals than other kinds of wildlife. Here are seven things to know about wolves in Washington.

1. Wolves are just another animal on the landscape — neither all good nor all bad
Wolves are an important part of the ecosystem, intelligent, and curious. These traits make them charismatic and interesting to the public. However, they are also carnivores, and come with the stigma sometimes associated with animals that survive by eating other animals that humans use for food, such as deer, elk, and occasionally livestock. Wolves don’t know they are controversial, and like all other animals, including people, they try to survive however they can.

Sometimes wolves attack livestock, but this is a relatively rare occurrence in Washington. Most of the wolf packs in Washington state — about 85 percent — haven’t done this and typically survive on elk, deer, and moose.

Wolf attacks on people in North America are virtually unheard of, with a few rare exceptions such as one in Banff in Alberta, Canada in 2019 that involved a sick wolf and one in Port Edward, British Columbia in late May 2020. There has not been a confirmed wolf attack on a human in the lower 48 states since at least 1900.

2. Wolves in Washington are considered endangered, but populations are returning
Wolves were eliminated from the state by the 1930s by livestock interests and government eradication programs. However, as decades progressed, values of the citizens of Washington has changed and wildlife managers began to better realize the value of large carnivores as parts of intact and healthy ecosystems.

Under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, wolves were able to start repopulating Washington, expanding their range from states and provinces like Idaho, Oregon and Canada. Reports of wolves started to occur in the 1990s and early 2000’s. The first pack to re-establish was documented in North Central Washington in 2008.

It isn’t possible to count every wolf, as they are elusive animals, but at the end of 2019, there were at least 145 wolves living in 26 packs in our state. That number will shift throughout the year as pups are born in April or May and some wolves disperse or die. The population number is a minimum count and the actual number of wolves is likely higher.

3. Not all gray wolves are gray
The species of wolves found in Washington are gray wolves (Canis lupus), the same species that existed in the state prior to their eradication in the 1930s.

· Gray wolves measure up to 6 feet in length, including the tail, and are about 30 inches tall at the shoulder.

· Female wolves weigh around 70 to 80 pounds, and males 95 to 110 pounds.

· Although only 40 to 60% of wolf pups make it to maturity, the average life span of Washington wolves is generally six to eight years.

Gray wolves range in color from black to white to brown, and all colors in between. Their coats will often be combination of several different colors.

Many people confuse coyotes and some breeds of dogs for wolves when seen from a distance. Gray wolves are about twice the size of coyotes with larger and blockier muzzles, shorter and more rounded ears, and shorter and bushier tails.

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Wolf tracks are about 5 inches long by 4 inches wide, with four symmetrical toes and evident claws, and a single lobe on the front of the foot pad. Coyote tracks are similar, but about half that size. Even the largest domestic dog breeds usually have smaller tracks.

You can check a map of known wolf range to better gauge whether you may have seen a wolf.

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4. What do I do if I encounter a wolf?
It is rare to encounter wolves in the wild, but if you do, give them a respectful distance to move along. Wolves can be inquisitive. If a wolf simply watches, or even follows you, it may not pose a threat, but may just be curious.

If the wolf acts aggressive, treat it like other wild animals and maintain eye contact while backing away. If it doesn’t go away, there are some things you can do to discourage it from approaching more closely, including throwing rocks, arming yourself with a stick, and yelling. Generally, this will encourage animals, even wolves, not to stick around. It is, however, a good idea to carry bear spray when recreating in the wilds of Washington.

If you do see a wolf in the wild, you have experienced something unique. Please help out WDFW’s biologists by reporting it on our wolf reporting portal.

5. Wolves are controversial
Having been extirpated from Washington almost one hundred years ago, it is not surprising that having wolves on the landscape again could cause controversy.

Although many people want to see the species thrive in Washington, others’ livelihoods are affected by them. WDFW actively works with the public, multiple stakeholder groups, and other government agencies and tribes to balance ongoing wolf recovery with the social and economic well-being of all Washingtonians.

6. Wolves die from a range of causes
Washington’s wolf population has increased each year, but wolves also die every year from a variety of causes.

In the Eastern one-third of Washington where wolves are federally delisted, they may be lawfully killed by humans when caught in the act of attacking livestock or may be lethally removed by WDFW if a pack begins to show a pattern of attacks on livestock that cannot be resolved with non-lethal means. These events are generally rare and many nonlethal tools are used to try to avoid this. Some wolves are struck and killed by vehicles or poached. As an endangered species, hunting is not allowed by the public, although some hunting by tribal members is allowed on some tribal lands in northeast Washington.

All told, each year, about 14 to 21 wolf mortalities are documented in Washington. About 90% of these are human caused. Outside of these incidents, it is illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect wolves, or attempt any of those activities. Penalties for such violations include fines of up to $100,000, with a maximum prison term of one year in jail.

7. What’s next for Washington wolves
The gray wolf is currently federally listed under the Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of Washington. Wolves have been federally delisted in the eastern one-third of Washington (east of State Route 97 from the Canadian border to Highway 17, east of Highway 17 to State Route 395, and east of State Route 395 to the Oregon border) but are still listed as endangered at the state level.

Wolf populations are recovering in Washington and WDFW is contemplating what wolf conservation and management will look like once wolves are no longer considered endangered. For that to happen, the wolf population must meet objectives of the Gray wolf conservation and management plan of 15 breeding pairs present in the state for at least three years, with at least four in Eastern Washington, four in the Northern Cascades, four in the Southern Cascades/Northwest Coast area, and three others anywhere in the state. Our state can consider initiating the delisting process if 18 breeding pairs are documented during a single year and statewide distribution objectives are met.

WDFW is currently developing a post-recovery plan to guide long-term conservation and management once wolves are delisted at both the state and federal levels.

Written by

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

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