Washington's wolf population grew at least 11% between 2018 and 2019, despite the death of 21 wolves from hunting, lethal removal and predation.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists documented a minimum of 108 wolves in 21 packs and 10 breeding pairs in 2019. That's compared to 97 wolves in 22 packs and 9 breeding pairs in 2018.
The state's annual wolf survey was published Monday. The survey sets a minimum number of wolves and packs in the state and guides management decisions for the year to come.
In 2019, for the first time since wolves naturally returned to Washington in 2008, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation did not formally survey wolves on their lands because they consider wolves recovered, according to WDFW's report. Instead, they relied on incidental wolf sightings reported by hunters, trappers, the public and biologist in the field.
For that reason, the tribe's reported number of 37 wolves is not comparable to previously reported estimates, WDFW's reports states and is not included in the overall wolf population estimate.
In early 2019 the tribe removed limits on wolf hunting. Now, tribal members may hunt wolves year-round.
According to WDFW's survey work two new wolf packs formed in 2019. The Sullivan Creek pack in Okanogan County and the Kettle Pack in northeast Washington. The Kettle Pack occupies former Old Profanity Territory Pack territory.
Of the 21 wolves that died in 2019, nine were killed by WDFW in response to livestock attacks, six were legally hunted by tribal members, one was killed by a cougar and one died of unknown causes. Additionally, two were killed by landowners protecting livestock, one was killed by a landowner who believed they were being threatened and one wolf death is still under investigation.
"We would like those sources of mortality to be as close to zero as possible," said Donny Martorello, the wolf policy lead for WDFW.
However, some deaths are unavoidable as the wolf population continues to grow, he said, noting that the more wolves on the landscape the greater likelihood they get hit by a car or run afoul of livestock. And, he pointed out that overall the wolf population is trending in the right direction.
"If you're thinking about the goal of the wolf plan to reach recovery objectives we're on a trajectory of, I think, success," he said. "We keep moving closer to that."
Ben Maletzke, WDFW's statewide wolf specialist and the lead author of the report, echoed Martorello's optimism.
"This year actually saw some promising trends," he said. "We actually had fewer packs that interacted with livestock."
All told, 14 cattle were killed by wolves and 11 were injured, according to WDFW and four packs were involved in at least one confirmed livestock death.
The newly minted Kettle Pack is indicative of the overall robustness of Washington's wolf population and neighboring wolf populations in Idaho, Canada and Oregon, Maletzke said. That's because in 2019 WDFW sharpshooters killed all eight members of the OPT pack. However, within months new wolves repopulated that territory.
"That's just typical wolf ecology," he said. "If there is good habitat wolves are gonna fill back in those areas."
Washington spent more than $1.5 million on wolf research, removal and livestock compensation programs in 2019. That included: $134,937 in reimbursement to 33 livestock producers for nonlethal wolf deterrents (range riding, specialized lighting and fencing, etc.), $251,100 for 11 contracted range riders, $8,773 to two producers for livestock losses caused by wolves, $30,103 to one producer for indirect losses, $128,613 for lethal removal operations in response to depredations on livestock and $965,133 for wolf management and research.
That was more or less what the department had anticipated spending, Martorello said.