Southwest Washington has its first wolf pack in a century, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says.
The Big Muddy Pack so far has only two known members, one male and one female. But that’s enough to meet the minimum requirement to be recognized as a pack: two or more wolves travelling together in winter.
The pack is expected to have pups soon, wolf pups are typically born in late April or early May.
The new pack is named after the Big Muddy Creek, which comes off the east side of Mount Adams and empties into the Klickitat River north of Glenwood, Wash. The creek lies within the Yakama Indian Reservation, and the Yakama Nation chose the pack’s name.
The wolves have established a territory in the southwest portion of the reservation and western Klickitat County. It’s a sparsely populated area where local livestock producers have long been anticipating the arrival of wolves and are already testing strategies to prevent conflicts with cattle.
Back from the dead
After years of trapping, poisoning and government-sponsored bounty programs, the gray wolf was almost entirely eradicated from the Pacific Northwest by the early 1900s. The last wolves in the Columbia River Gorge were documented in the 1920s.
In the 1970s, wolves received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. By the 2000s, a small number of dispersing wolves had migrated to Washington from Idaho and British Columbia.
Since 2008, when the first resident pack was documented in northeast Washington, the numbers of wolves and wolf packs have continued to grow each year.
According to the just-released wolf report, the state’s wildlife agency and Tribes counted a minimum population of 216 wolves and 37 wolf packs at the end of 2022.
Some 26 of these packs had successful breeding pairs—defined as a male and female with at least two pups that survived until Dec. 31. The average litter size is four pups.
Washington’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, adopted in 2011 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, divides the state into three recovery regions: Eastern Washington, the Northern Cascades and the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast. Until the discovery of the Big Muddy Pack, there were no documented wolf packs in that third region.
Most of Washington’s wolf packs are currently found in the northeast and southeast corners of the state, but wolves have been moving into north-central and central Washington in recent years.
It’s very common for an adult wolf to leave its birth pack or another pack that it has joined for a while.
“Almost every wolf does that at least once in its life. That’s how packs start, It’s the primary driver of population growth.” – Quoted from Gabe Spence, wolf biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and an expert tracker.
Wolves typically disperse in search of a mate when they are two or three years old. “Every wolf wants to be a breeder,” he said.
WA109M strikes out on his own
Five collared Washington wolves are known to have dispersed from their birth packs in 2021, including an approximately two-year-old male that Spence’s team captured and collared north of Ellensburg in January 2021. Dubbed WA109M, the wolf left his pack in central Washington later that year.
WA109M wandered around for a while before crossing Interstate 90 and heading south through Yakama Nation lands. By late January 2022, he had traveled more than 325 miles and arrived in Klickitat County.
In April 2022, biologists monitoring WA109M reported that he was traveling in Klickitat and Yakima Counties with a second wolf, an uncollared animal of unknown age and sex.
The biologists don’t know where the second wolf came from or exactly when it met WA109M, but they determined it is a female by sending some of its scat to University of Washington researchers for genetic testing.
The two wolves have since spent their time hunting, sleeping and covering a lot of ground.
Wolf territories can be hundreds of square miles, and wolves use dens only for a short time when their pups are small.
It’s likely that a pair maintaining a territory together will produce pups this year, Spence said. About 70% of wolf packs produce pups in any given year.
Spence said he wouldn’t be surprised to get a confirmed sighting of a gray wolf almost anywhere in Washington at this point in the species’ recovery.
But confirming the existence of a pack that is maintaining a territory is far more significant, and finding the first pack in the only Washington wolf-recovery region that did not previously have one is “a big deal,” he said. “A lot of people have been waiting for this for a long time.”
Preventing conflicts with wolves
Conversations anticipating the arrival of wolves in Southwest Washington started long before WA109M showed up, and even before a photo taken in Klickitat County in 2014 was confirmed as a wolf sighting. (That wolf was never seen again.)
“Ten years ago, we started a range-rider pilot program with some of the livestock producers in Klickitat County, to get them familiar with the concept of range riding and monitoring livestock for the presence of wolves, because we knew it was coming,” said Todd Jacobsen, the local wildlife conflict specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A range rider is a cowboy or cowgirl who checks on herds to prevent conflicts with predators.
Jacobsen has since had many informal meetings to discuss wolves with local livestock producers around kitchen tables, as well as at organized meetings and workshops.
“There have not been any confirmed or probable livestock mortalities or injuries from these wolves in Klickitat County,” he said.
WDFW has a detailed protocol that outlines the tools and strategies the agency uses to reduce wolf-livestock interactions and support wolf recovery in Washington. The protocol includes methods for investigating suspected depredations.
Predators such as wolves and cougars have distinctive ways of killing their prey. To investigate a potential livestock depredation, specialists from the wildlife department shave and skin the carcass, looking for bite marks and subcutaneous hemorrhaging of muscle tissue, especially in the hamstrings and armpits. Tissue damage on a live animal attacked by a wolf will look different than damage to an already-dead animal scavenged by a wolf.
In the absence of telltale bite marks, investigators look for other signs of a wolf attack, such as fresh tracks, scat, hair caught on fences and blood or other physical evidence of a struggle.
Wolves feed primarily on elk, deer and moose. However, they will readily eat any livestock carcasses they find.
“They are really good at finding carcasses,” Spence said.
The wildlife department is working with livestock producers to emphasize the importance of quickly removing the carcasses of cattle that have died from disease, severe weather or other causes. Otherwise, these carcasses are likely to attract wolves, and the wolves might then become habituated to finding food in an area where cattle are pastured.