By Terry Otto / The Columbian
Since their reintroduction, gray wolves have continued to spread over the Washington landscape, and a fierce debate has followed them.
Some ranchers and hunters vilify the predators, while many conservationists say they are a part of the natural landscape that needs to be protected.
The issue is so contentious that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently cancelled open-house style meetings with the public to discuss future management of the species. Activists on all sides of the issue were planning to use disruptive tactics at the meetings. The WDFW will now hold interactive online webinars instead.
Wolves will eventually move into Southwest Washington. WDFW wolf specialist Benjamin Maletzke reports there are areas in the region that are well suited to wolves.
“Wolf habitat is pretty much wherever there is mountainous, forested terrain with deer and elk populations,” said Maletzke.
Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens offer just the kind of country the big predators are looking for, but where would they come from? The closest wolves can be found north of Wenatchee, about 230 miles from the foothills of Mount Adams.
Staci Lehman, the WDFW’s point person on wolves, said the probability that wolves would move south and west from the north-central Cascades is likely.
“They might spread down from Wenatchee and slowly work their way over,” said Lehman. “There’s some habitat there. There are thick woods, and not a lot of (human) population.”
“It would take a while, though,” she added.
Another possible source of a wolf migration into Southwest Washington might come from across the Columbia River, where the White River pack has established itself along the eastern slopes of Mount Hood.
“We do get wolves that come up from Oregon,” said Lehman. “They do disperse widely. One could come up from the Mount Hood pack and end up staying in Washington.”
It is only 80 miles between Mount Hood and the Trout Lake area.
“Wolves can move up to 600 miles,” said Maletzke. “There is a higher probability that (wandering) wolves will be near established packs. It’s just a matter of a pair finding each other and establishing a territory. Anywhere in Washington is fair game if there is forest cover and deer and elk.”
What would wolves in Southwest Washington mean for area residents? And, how would wolves affect big game hunting?
“I think there are a number of different studies (ongoing) in Wyoming and Idaho and Canada that have looked at that a long time,” said Maletzke. “These animals have evolved together on the landscape. It’s not something that is a concern that wolves are going to extensively affect (the game).
“They don’t decimate a herd.”
Dale Denny of Bearpaw Outfitters has guided hunts in northeast Washington for decades, and does not share Maletzke’s view.
“In the last 10 to 12 years we have had packs, and the biggest change is that there is half as much game,” said Denny. “There has been a huge impact.”
“The moose have been hit hardest,” he said. “They’ve reduced the moose herd by 30 to 40 percent. When I guided hunters, we expected to see five bulls a day. Now if I can see a bull every three days, I’m doing good.”
He reports that the deer have been hit hard, too, but he realizes that is not all due to wolves.
“You can’t blame it all on the wolves, we also have way too many cougars,” he said, “and I think the cougars kill more (game) than the wolves, but the additional wolf kill is where it really makes a difference.”
He said the behaviors of the animals are changing, too.
“Elk quit bugling as much. If the elk call, it draws the wolves in,” said Denny.
In Idaho, where there have been wolves for longer, elk are gathering around farmsteads and ranches in the lower elevation areas that wolves avoid.
“We’re starting to see a little bit of that in northeast Washington, too.”
He said the deer get hit hard.
“Deer are not as smart,” he said, “they do not change their habits.”
Maletzke does agree that wolves can change big game habits.
“Any large predator upon the landscape is going to change the way deer and elk move over that landscape,” he said. “They may not get gather in large groups, and may not spend as much time in open areas.”
Elk in Southwest Washington are already struggling from treponema-associated hoof disease, and wolves are known for taking down sick animals.
“They could reduce the number of infected animals,” said Maletzke. “I think there is a good potential for that. I think those animals would be more vulnerable to predation for sure.”
According to the experts, outdoor recreationists have little to fear from wolves. They want desperately to stay away from humans. Unlike cougars, which will slip into residential areas sometimes, wolves are much shyer.
“Most people are not going to see them,” said Lehman. “They will never know they are there.”
As they increase in numbers, will Washington sportsmen be able to hunt them eventually? That may be a possibility, but Denny is not optimistic.
“The biggest worry I have is that as soon as the WDFW does try to manage wolves and initiate some kind of season there will be a (citizen) initiative started to shut it down,” he said. “It will come down just like the cougars and the bear bait.”