What to expect when wolves expand to your area
Wolf populations are slowly returning across Washington State. Populations are steadily growing, which means wolves are dispersing into new areas and forming new packs. No matter where you live in the state, chances are good that, eventually, you will have wolves living in the back country of your region.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff conduct an annual population survey of wolves each winter when wolf populations experience the least amount of natural fluctuation.
During this time, biologists are also able to see wolf tracks in snow, which helps in tracking the animals. They are also easier to spot against a background of snow when being counted from a helicopter or airplane. As wolf populations grow, wolves will disperse and spread out to find new territory to accommodate the growth.
Today, most wolf packs are located in northeast Washington, from around the town of Chewelah north to the Canadian border. There are also several packs in southeast Washington in Columbia and Garfield counties and along the east slopes of the Cascade Mountains, north of Interstate 90. As individual wolves and new packs move into areas where wolves haven’t been in the recent past, it’s a good idea to become informed on what to expect.
Most people will never know wolves are in the vicinity or be impacted in a significant way. Others may see signs of the animals- such as tracks or scat- while hiking, camping or doing other outdoor activities in the backcountry. Some people may hear or see wolves from a distance, and there may be occasional encounters between humans and wolves on trails or when people wander into a den area or rendezvous site where pups spend time before being old enough to hunt with the pack.
Around humans, wolves are shy and tend to avoid people. Encounters will usually end with the wolf running off as soon as it becomes aware of human presence. But wolves are curious and may not quickly disperse every time. In this case a person may want to backtrack the way they came. Although this behavior may be intimidating to people, it isn’t uncommon for wolves — and it is not necessarily a sign of aggression. That said, it’s never a good idea to approach a wolf or any wild animal.
Wolves become more curious, and possibly confrontational, when a person is hiking with dogs. They may respond by challenging dogs over perceived territory. A dog that wanders into a wolf den or rendezvous site will be viewed similarly to a burglar entering your home. Wolves may chase or want to fight with it. To reduce the potential for interactions between wolves and dogs, keep your dog on a leash when hiking, don’t allow dogs to chase wildlife (they could return with a larger animal following them), and walk the opposite direction if you encounter a wolf. More information on dogs and wolves is in the Recreating with your dog in wolf country blog.
Wolves are an apex predator and hunt in packs, usually preying on elk, deer, and moose. They also scavenge carrion and eat smaller animals on occasion. Being opportunistic hunters, they tend to prey mainly on younger, older, and debilitated animals. As with any wildlife, wolves may be attracted to human food, so store all food in wildlife resistant containers while camping and never feed any wild animal.
Wolves alone rarely influence the abundance of healthy prey populations, but they may have an impact when combined with other factors such as drought, hard winters, disease, habitat loss, and impacts from other predators. The Washington Predator-Prey Project is a research project currently underway to investigate the effects of wolves and other predators on ungulate populations in Washington. The project is studying the impact to mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk from wolves, as well as other carnivores such as cougars, bobcats, and coyotes. It also looks at the impact of wolf populations on other predator populations. WDFW is partnering with professors and graduate students from the University of Washington on the 5-year project, which may provide some of the best data in the nation available regarding the effects of wolves in managed, multi-use landscapes.
Wolves will sometimes attack livestock or domestic animals, but this is an exception rather than the rule. In Washington in 2019, 85% of wolf packs were not involved in any documented livestock depredation. There are many instances where wolves have been seen near livestock without attacking any animals. Livestock producers are able to work with the Department to prevent negative wolf interactions and access funding to help prevent conflict and offset the impact of any losses.
When these livestock depredations happen, or when wolves are seen near livestock, ranchers are encouraged to work with WDFW staff, called conflict specialists, who assist people having issues with wild animals. Our conflict specialists work with ranchers to help them take proactive steps to prevent depredations on livestock — ideally before any harm occurs to their animals. Conflict specialists have funding to help provide nonlethal tools to proactively protect livestock. The tools can range from flags on fences that flap in the wind to radio-activated guard (RAG) boxes that play loud music and flash lights when approached by wolves wearing radio tracking collars. In areas with large grazing allotments, livestock producers are encouraged to use range riders, people who patrol herds on horseback or ATV to monitor livestock condition and health and keep them gathered (e.g., keeping mother cows and calves paired). More information on nonlethal deterrent methods used in Washington is in the blog post A collaboration: Washington’s non-lethal wolf conflict management tools.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife supports the recovery of wolves in our state and wants others to learn about them as well. Although negative stereotypes of wolves go back over a hundred years in our culture- think Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs- most people have little to worry about when it comes to wolves naturally moving back into the areas they once occupied in Washington.