Courtesy Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Wolves are not noticeably reducing the number of deer and elk in northeast Washington, according to an assessment by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife,
The study, which was completed a year ago but only released Dec. 8, found that hunter success suggests herd populations are stable, even where there are many wolfpacks.
“This is not a conclusive statement that there are no impacts, but from the harvest data, we’re not seeing an indication,” WDFW wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello said Thursday.
Wolves are a state-protected species, but WDFW’s wolf recovery plan allows the department to cull packs if wolves reduce deer and elk herds or harvests by 25 percent.
WDFW authorized the assessment in its current game management plan, partly because of public interest in whether wolves are reducing the prey base, a question of keen interest to livestock producers and wolf advocates, as well as hunters. Martorello said that he only recently learned of the study and wanted to make it available to the public.
WDFW Game Division Manager Anis Aoude said that the study was an internal report and not publishing it earlier was an oversight. He said he believes the findings are still current.
The assessment looked at deer and elk herds throughout the state, as well as moose and bighorn sheep.
WDFW researchers largely relied on hunting trends through 2015. “Using the data at our disposal, none of the ungulate populations in this assessment appear to show clear signs of depredation,” according to the report.
Hunters Heritage Council President Mark Pidgeon, a member of WDFW’s wolf advisory group, said the report conflicts with hunter anecdotes.
“They’re telling me the opposite,” he said. “They’re tell me horror stories about northeast Washington.”
Some 17 of the state’s 20 wolfpacks are in four northeast counties. The state’s wolf population grew by 32 percent in 2015 and 28 percent in 2016, according to WDFW. State officials say they expect the growth to continue at that pace.
Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen, a northeast Washington rancher, questioned whether the assessment reflects the current state of the prey base for wolves.
“There are going to be damn few people around here who believe it,” he said. “We’ve had a 30 percent increase for the last two years.
“When their native prey base gets difficult to get, that’s when they move to cows,” he said.
According to the WDFW assessment, population estimates of white-tailed deer in the rugged northeast corner of the state are not practical. But ground surveys provide a rough estimate of population trends. Along with harvest data, the surveys indicate the deer population is increasing, even though the area had nine wolfpacks when the report was written.
“It doesn’t surprise me because of what I see on the ground,” said Tim Coleman, executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group.
Coleman, also a member of WDFW’s wolf advisory group, lives in northeast Washington and said he spent a lot of time camping in the region this summer.
“I’m not seeing much of a change in the ungulate population,” Coleman said. “The two (wolves and ungulates) have lived together for millennium.”
WDFW started a long-range study last winter to take a deeper look at how wolves are affecting deer and elk in northeast Washington. The study includes putting radio collars on deer and elk where wolves roam and see happens to them.
“This is an ongoing thing for us,” Martorello said. “Looking at harvest data is just one indicator and likely not the best indicator.”