IONE, Wash. — To monitor wolf movement and population growth, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists have to think like wolves.
Wolves are challenging to capture, said Scott Becker, wolf specialist for the agency. They’re bolder than coyotes, but still cautious.
“When we trap, what we try to do is basically pique their curiosity more than their natural cautiousness,” he said. “Sometimes it works, some times it doesn’t.”
The traps have to be subtle. Make it too obvious, and the wolf will know something’s up, Becker said. Human scent needs to be minimized at the trap site.
“They are smart — when they smell something there, they know something’s happened at that spot, but they may not know exactly what,” he said.
Becker, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf biologist Trent Roussin and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service wildlife biologist Wade Jones were recently tracking an as yet unnamed pack of wolves on national forest land south of Sullivan Lake near Ione, Wash.
An adult male wolf was caught in one of the traps they set the next day, which is unusual, Roussin said.
“We had these guys fairly well pinned down — we knew they were in there,” Roussin said. “There were fresh tracks going up and down the road.”
The department found out about the new pack through public reports last summer and fall, Becker said. The department is contacting the person who first reported them to see if he wants to name the pack.
Based on tracking and camera surveys, Becker estimates the pack consists of at least eight wolves — four adults and four pups. The department estimates there were at least 52 wolves in 13 packs in the state as of March.
Roussin has tracked wolves for various agencies across North America.
Wolves tend to go into areas that have lots of game, Roussin said. They also follow easy travel corridors.
“The easiest mode of travel between two points — wolves seem to take that,” Roussin said. “That’s how we decide where we’re going to (set out traps.)”
The team monitors wolves year around. In the summer, the agency looks for wolf signs before setting traps.
In the winter, wolves are easier to track and count, Becker said. The agency uses a helicopter in the winter.
The trackers look for wolf scat and tracks. They seldom see wolves and rely instead on trail cameras.
“Wolves are not very subtle creatures,” Becker said. “If they’re in the area, they leave tracks and scat all over the place. Sometimes it might be hard to catch up to them and pin them down, because their territory is so large.”
The average range of a wolf is 350 square miles, he said.
Funding for tracking, trapping and monitoring wolves comes from a $10 license plate increase for personalized plates in the last legislative session, said Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager for the department.
The agency typically sets up traps in an area for 10 to 14 days, depending on how much activity they find.
Traps are laid using a combination of animal scents, glands and lures, trying to cover the scent of humans.
“Everyone has their own little secret scent that they add to those things, too,” Becker said.
The agency doesn’t try to draw wolves from miles away, because it wants to determine their travel patterns, Becker said.
They use livestock protection traps that have a molded rubber jaw to avoid injuring the wolf. They will use a drug to immobilize a captured wolf, release it from the trap and find a shady, cool spot to work on the wolf. The biologists check the animal’s temperature, which tends to increase when it is caught, and cool it if needed. The trackers check traps twice during especially hot days to make sure a trapped wolf won’t overheat.
They put a radio collar and ear tags on the wolf in addition to collecting blood and DNA samples.
Becker most enjoys trying to figure out where the wolves are and how many there are.
Is there a part of the job he likes least?
“The politics get a little hairy at times,” Becker said.
The department is often caught between ranchers concerned about the impacts the animals will have on their livestock and environmental groups anxious to see wolf populations restored.
Becker believes a consistent approach is one of the most important things the agency can do to assist both sides.
Wolves can be managed to prevent livestock losses, he said, but lethal control can also be an effective management tool if used properly.
The department emphasizes non-lethal, preventive measures, he said.
Martorello said there have not been any confirmed wolf-livestock depredations in 2014. A dog was injured by a wolf early in the year.
Becker advises farmers to contact the department if they think they have a livestock depredation or suspect they’ve found wolf tracks.
“We do everything we can to document wolves in the state, because we want them to get off the state endangered list as well, open up more management options if conflicts do arise,” he said.
“They don’t kill cows all that often,” Roussin said. “It’s not like every time they run across a cow they’re going to kill it.”
Roussin said farmers might spot tracks if wolves are in the area, but they are unlikely to actually see one.
“I’ve been here for two years and I’ve seen one (that was) not in a trap, just out walking around,” he said.
Of the 323 known wolf packs in the Northern Rockies, about 20 percent were involved in one or more livestock depredations, Becker said. The rest didn’t cause problems.
“If you actively manage only that 20-30 percent that causes problems, there’s still going to be a lot of wolves left on the landscape,” he said. “The ones that don’t cause the problems are the ones we want on the landscape. We don’t necessarily want the ones that are causing problems all the time.”