By DON JENKINS
More wolves and deer in northeast Washington will be captured and fitted with radio collars this winter as the state Department of Fish and Wildlife tries to learn whether the predators are cutting into the supply of wild prey.
Washington’s wolf plan allows Fish and Wildlife to relocate or kill wolves if they drive down deer and elk populations. The five-year study, now entering its third year, should tell wildlife managers whether that is happening, Fish and Wildlife carnivore research scientist Brian Kerston said Thursday.
“I do think we’ll be able to answer the question whether wolves are having a significant impact on ungulates,” he said. “That’s what we’re gunning for.”
Fish and Wildlife, joined by University of Washington researchers, hopes to capture at least 30 white-tailed deer in Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Researchers have captured a similar number of elk and deer the past two winters in the two counties, as well as Okanogan County.
The captured deer and elk are fitted with radio-collars that transmit their movements. When an animal stops moving, researchers go to the carcass and investigate. Kersten said they have not documented a case in which a deer or elk was killed by wolves, but it’s too early in the study to draw conclusions.
Researchers also hope to collar cougars, bobcats and coyotes, as well as wolves to learn more about how predators are interacting and affecting ungulates. Kerston said researchers aspire to put collars on wolves in the Dirty Shirt, Stranger, Loup Loup, Lookout and Huckleberry packs, though it will be difficult to accomplish that in one season.
The 2011 wolf plan anticipated wolves would have a small effect on the state’s overall population of elk and deer. Once the number of wolves topped 100 in one area, however, wolf predation could be noticeable, according to the plan. At the end of 2017, at least 100 of the state’s 122 wolves were in Stevens, Okanogan, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen said wolves already have cut into the number of deer and elk in the region.
“If they come up with a finding that ungulates are fine, it would be laughable here,” said Nielsen, a Stevens County rancher.
“Wolves are going to eat something, or they’re going to disperse, and the wolves aren’t dispersing. They’re staying and eating our livestock,” he said.
In a separate study led by UW scientists and published in July, researchers collared 52 deer between 2013 and 2016 in territory occupied by wolves, mostly on the Colville Indian Reservation. Wolves killed two of the deer, while cougars killed five and coyotes killed two.
The researchers concluded that wolves probably weren’t markedly changing the ungulate population, but that could change as wolves become more established.
Fish and Wildlife asks hunters who harvest a radio-collared deer or elk to call the department’s Eastern Region office in Spokane Valley at (509) 892-1001, so that researchers can retrieve the collar and take biological samples from the carcass.