By KIMBERLY CAUVEL
State and federal wildlife agencies last week trapped, collared and released what they believe is an adult male gray wolf near Marblemount.
The trapping of the wolf came after reports of wolf tracks, howling and attacked chickens in the area.
It is the first time a gray wolf has been caught and fitted with a GPS collar west of the North Cascades crest, state Department of Fish & Wildlife spokesman Craig Bartlett said.
“The clearest previous indication of wolves moving west of the Cascades was in April 2015, when a wolf was found dead — hit by a vehicle — on Interstate 90. There have also been scattered reports of sightings, but this is the first wolf captured and collared in Western Washington,” Bartlett said.
The gray wolf population has grown in Eastern Washington over the past decade, but there are no known packs — groups of two or more animals — in Western Washington.
Gray wolves are protected as an endangered species throughout the state, with state protection in Eastern Washington and federal Endangered Species Act protection in the western two-thirds of the state. The species has been protected in the state since 1978.
State and federal wildlife officials are monitoring the movements of the wolf through GPS data from the collar and are working to determine where the wolf came from and whether it is accompanied by other wolves.
“U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is continuing to investigate reported wolf activity in eastern Skagit County, Washington Fish & Wildlife is assisting … and we will share more information as it becomes available,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokeswoman Ann Froschauer said.
Officials said state and federal agencies receive reports of wolf sightings and activity in Skagit County each year, but most are unconfirmed.
In the case of the captured wolf, Marblemount area residents reported hearing howling and seeing tracks, and on May 17 a resident submitted photos of a wolf to wildlife officials.
Officials trapped and collared the animal, collected DNA samples while it was sedated, and placed wildlife cameras in the area where the wolf was found.
Froschauer said DNA results will confirm whether the wolf is a gray wolf or another species, and could help pinpoint which pack it came from, likely from an area in Eastern Washington or southern British Columbia.
Gray wolves can get up to about 6 feet long and typically weigh about 100 pounds, according to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. They are about twice the size of a coyote.
Although referred to as gray wolves, their color can vary. They can have shades of white, brown, gray and black.
At the end of 2016, the state documented 20 packs in the state, including a few in the eastern North Cascades. The pack closest to Skagit County is the Lookout Pack near Twisp in neighboring Okanogan County, according to state maps.
That pack was believed in 2015 to include three wolves and no breeding pairs, according to an annual state Fish & Wildlife survey.
Wildlife officials said they have evidence that in recent years four wolves have spent time in western parts of the state, including the one killed on I-90 near North Bend and three fitted with GPS collars in Eastern Washington that have been tracked into Western Washington and back.
Froschauer said in the case of the wolf caught and collared last week, it will take several months to get DNA results and to determine whether the animal is moving through or settling in the area.
Either way, the presence of the wolf last week is a sign that gray wolf recovery is working in the state, Bartlett said. Since 2008, the population has grown about 30 percent a year, with an estimated 115 wolves at the end of 2016.