By Eric Schwartz
for the Nisqually Valley News
Wolf Haven wildlife curator Wendy Spencer could hear branches and trees collapsing under the weight of heavy snow and ice Thursday and Friday as a fierce winter storm ripped across the region.
But it was what she couldn’t hear that alarmed her.
The loud, piercing and normally constant sound of the sanctuary’s 48 wolves and 2 coyotes howling through the night was absent.
In fact, the only thing howling was the wind.
That’s because the wolves of Wolf Haven were busy dodging branches, avoiding debris and trying to survive what has amounted to the largest disaster in the history of the nonprofit sanctuary and conservation facility just outside Tenino.
Saturday brought warmer weather and the realization that all but one wolf — a 16-year-old Mexican gray — had survived through the storm. Wolf Haven officials believe the elderly canine died from causes unrelated to the weather.
But the new day also shed light on mounds of debris and broken enclosures throughout the facility.
Total damages have not yet been tallied, but Wolf Haven Executive Director Diane Gallegos estimates the cost of repairs will land somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000.
“You just heard ‘crash, thump, thump, thump’ just nonstop,” said Gallegos, who was at Wolf Haven during the day throughout the winter storm. “Now the people are all OK here, the animals are OK. It’s just a miracle.”
Spencer led efforts to monitor the wolves throughout the duration of the winter weather.
She and a small team of workers were relegated to walking through the facility to check on the animals, searching for something as simple as a sighting to assure them they had not been harmed by falling debris.
“We couldn’t really do anything,” Spencer said. “It was just a matter of making sure the animals were OK and alive.”
Spencer described how the wolves peered up toward the trees as their survival instincts kicked in and alerted them to danger. Spencer and others could only pause briefly at each enclosure so as not to distract them from watching out for their own safety.
Two wolves escaped their main enclosures and spent the night wandering across the sanctuary.
Large tracks remained in what was left of the snow spread throughout the facility Monday.
Because the sanctuary is secured behind a system of three enclosures, none of the animals were at risk of escaping, according to Wolf Haven officials.
Instead, the two wolves explored the grounds within the confines of remaining fences.
Workers corralled the two wolves back into their enclosures Saturday, the same day that all of the wolves were fed for the first time since the winter weather rolled in.
“This is their new reality and they just live in the moment and they just deal with it as it comes,” Spencer said. “We pulled the truck in and just like normal feeding days, they all came running to the front with their tails wagging.
“They were saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
Gallegos said she’s happy Wolf Haven escaped with only damaged property. There were times during the heavy snow and subsequent ice and wind when she felt that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
“It just puts everything in perspective when you have something like this,” she said.
Spencer echoed that sentiment.
“Unbelievable,” she said, looking toward one of the most heavily damaged enclosures. “I was sure we were going to come in during one of the walk-throughs and find an animal either trapped under a limb or dead.”
Wolf Haven officials are now turning their attention toward recovery.
Crews were already on hand Monday, cutting up trees, clearing debris and starting what promises to be a long-term repair process.
Wolf Haven is traditionally closed in February for mating season, but the annual closure might be longer-lasting in light of the damaged facility.
“There is just so much damage here,” Gallegos said. “We really do need help.”