Nov. 29–One Washington group is using a billboard campaign to push the state to more strictly manage and decrease the number of wolves, a predator which they say is contributing to a loss of elk, hurting livestock operations and is a danger to the public.
Washington Residents Against Wolves, a nonprofit group, funded four billboards installed earlier in the month around the Spokane area. The billboards read “Endangered? No. Dangerous? Yes. Good for Washington? Absolutely Not!”
“We feel there is not a broad enough awareness about the impact of wolves in Washington state,” said Jamie Henneman, media relations representative for WRAW. “There has been some (awareness) with the impact on livestock, but the impact is much, much greater.”
Those on the other side of the debate, however, argue wolves are not the major cause of the decline in elk populations or the dangerous predator some claim them to be.
One of the major concerns for Henneman and her group is what they say is the rapidly increasing number of wolves in Washington. Numbers posted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in its Summer 2014 Field Season Update indicate there are currently a minimum of 52 wolves between 13 different packs in the state. In 2010, there were less than 20 wolves in the state, according to the report.
“Wolves have litters … so we are going to end up with a lot of wolves in a very short time,” she said.
Wolves breed at a high rate, and Henneman said she believes there are already more wolves in the state than wildlife officials know about.
Oz Garton, population ecologist and University of Idaho emeritus professor, said when reproduction rates are taken into account, out of 1,000 wolves, 400 would have to be eliminated in one season to actually decrease their numbers.
Garton said because of an increase in hunting and trapping wolves in Idaho, though, it is difficult to accurately gauge the number of wolves in the region.
According to Idaho Fish and Game numbers there were at least 659 wolves in Idaho at the end of 2013. During that same year, 473 wolf mortalities were recorded.
In the early 1990s, Garton worked to establish a prediction model to determine the impact wolves would have on the northern Yellowstone National Park elk herds if reintroduced to the park.
The park had previously maintained elk herd numbers around 5,000, but they had grown to nearly 20,000 by the time the wolves were introduced in 1995.
Through his research, Garton determined that, with the wolf population resting between 70 and 90, the elk population would settle around 16,000.
But after five years with wolves present in the park, Yellowstone officials allowed the harvest on elk to increase from 9 to 11 percent, he said.
“It will end up stabilizing at some much lower number,” he said, adding the elk population could diminish to as low as 3,000 with the heightened harvest.
According to the National Park Service, the winter count for the northern elk herds in Yellowstone National Park was around 17,000 in 1995, when wolves were first introduced. Numbers then fell below 10,000 in 2003, after the elk harvest numbers had been increased. In early 2013, the National Park Service reported only 3,915 elk in the northern region of the park.
“The decrease has been attributed to predation by reintroduced wolves and a large bear population, hunter harvest and drought-related effects on pregnancy and survival,” the National Park Service stated on its website.
Garton said it is all a balancing act of the variables, including how many wolves to put into the system, how many elk are harvested and how other predators are managed.
When the Yellowstone wolf population was eliminated back in the 1920s, it allowed for the elk herds to grow tremendously, but that also took a significant toll on the natural habitat, he said. There was no longer enough grass to sustain the number of elk and their search for additional food sources was destroying to the forest and the habitat of other, smaller animals.
“There were once great riparian areas along river beds and beavers, and those all disappeared,” Garton said.
In the Clearwater and Lochsa areas, he said a similar scenario took place in the 1970s. After a major fire wiped out acres and acres of forest, it was basically an elk heaven, Garton said.
“There were hardly any trees,” he said. “There were phenomenal brush fields that grew, which was great for elk and deer.”
When the trees began to grow in years later, the number of grass fields diminished and elk numbers began to shrink and or they moved to other parts of the forest.
By about the year 2000, the wolves had made their way into that same area.
“Wolves then sort of added to the natural process going on there,” Garton said. “Hunters pick on the wolves as the problem, which is really not true.”
Garton said habitat is the primary driver for changes in elk population and location, followed by the impact of wolves.
Henneman also said allowing wolves in Washington is not fair to the predators already in the state, including bears and cougars.
“We have this non-native species coming in and disturbing this,” she said. “We appreciate the predators as a really important role in the ecosystem … (but) we already have this handled in Washington.”
Wildlife officials have repeatedly said the species of gray wolf introduced, canis lupus, is the exact species that once thrived in the Northwest and is now spreading back in from neighboring states and Canadian provinces.
Interactions with people
Henneman said she is also worried that, with an increase in wolves in specific areas of eastern Washington, other predators will be pushed closer toward cities and people.
“We don’t want to see cougars on playgrounds or bears coming into the city to eat the garbage,” she said.
Henneman said she hopes the billboards will prompt a discussion on the interactions between the old and new predators in the state.
“We really need to start taking a harder look at the data,” she said. “How many ungulates are really available for the current predators? When we take a wolf and add it in, what will happen?”
Garton, though, said wolves are a good sign of sustainability and a healthy natural system. If there isn’t enough grass lands for elk to feed on, there wouldn’t be enough prey for the wolves and other predators to survive. Garton said allowing the elk and deer to eat off all of the vegetation in an area is not healthy for the ecosystem as a whole.
Henneman said health, safety concerns and economic impacts when wolves attack and kill livestock are among the worries of wolves and other predators moving closer to populated areas.
Since Aug. 14, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed wolves from the Huckleberry Pack have killed 22 sheep and injured three more in six separate incidents, despite an array of preventive measures employed by the department and livestock owners.
There have only been two wolf-caused human fatalities in North America in the past 60 years and there have been no physical attacks on people in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming since the wolf recovery began in the Northwest region of the country in the 1980s, according to the WDFW’s website.
“Wild wolves generally fear and avoid people, and rarely pose a threat to human safety,” the website says.
Garton said wolves are not the most dangerous predator people and other animals should be afraid of — that distinction, he said, belongs to the grizzly bear.
“They’re not nearly as dangerous as some of the other predators we come across,” he said. “With wolves, it’s much less common for that to happen … grizzly bears, they own the landscape where they are.”
Wolves, he said, will typically try to avoid people.
“I encounter signs of them around Moscow,” he said, adding there have been sightings near the Idler’s Rest and Mountain View Road area. That pack’s center is likely back beyond Bovill, he said.
Activists against wolves are just grabbing for the fear in people who think wolves are evil, Garton said.
“They want people to think that these wolves are dangerous,” he said.
Henneman said their campaign isn’t a “shoot-them-all campaign.”
“We are not wolf haters,” she said. “We really do want to have constructive discussions.”
Samantha Malott can be reached at (208) 883-4639, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.