Three more months may pass before researchers can report whether wolves occupy the South Cascades, a University of Washington scientist said Wednesday.
The study has been pushed back by budget constraints, ivory poaching probes and time-consuming DNA testing, said Samuel Wasser, director of UW’s Center for Conservation Biology
“It’s an unfortunate thing, but we are a small lab, and we do very high-end work,” he said.
Wasser has been honored by wildlife advocates for helping track the source of poached ivory through DNA testing of elephant dung and tusks. Washington lawmakers in 2018 charged him with analyzing scat collected in the South Cascades to count wolves and other predators, and learn what they eat.
Dogs last winter sniffed out about 2,000 piles of scat. Preliminary tests on 40 samples found no wolf scat between Interstate 90 and the Columbia River. Wasser told legislators in April that he expected to have complete results by summer.
Wasser said Wednesday that his center has 2.6 positions, excluding himself, and is working on several other projects, including testing for the Department of Homeland Security tusks seized in Hong Kong and Uganda.
The poaching cases require an “urgent turnaround,” while the wolf research is “a long-term project,” he said.
“So we’re kind of fitting this in as we can,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t care. We care deeply.”
The state funded similar research by Wasser in northeast Washington between 2015 and 2017. The research led Wasser to speculate that Washington had more wolves than counted by Fish and Wildlife.
Wasser said he got “push back” from the department, so for the South Cascades project, his laboratory will pioneer additional testing to increase confidence in the results.
“There are all of these steps that take forever,” he said. “When we say, there are ‘X number of wolves,’ we’ll be very confident. Frankly, we were confident the last time.
“The last thing we want to do is create animosity with (Fish and Wildlife). We want to be collaborators,” Wasser said.
Fish and Wildlife statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke said the department and Wasser are working on an agreement to share genetic information about wolves, another time-consuming step.
Maletzke said the department will appreciate information it may get from Wasser’s research. He also said the department is grateful for reports filed by hunters, campers and others who spot wolves in the South Cascades.
“We’re working hard to find packs,” he said. “There could be easily be a pack or two down there.”
Lawmakers set aside $172,000 in 2018 and another $344,000 this year for the project, according to budgets. A lawmaker who advocated for the funding said he doesn’t want to rush the analysis, but he is getting impatient.
“I want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer: Are there wolves in the South Cascades?” said House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen.
Recovery won’t be complete until at least four wolfpacks are producing pups in the South Cascades, according to Fish and Wildlife. The department has not found any pack, let alone one breeding pups.
Finding wolves there would bolster the argument for removing wolves from the state-protected species list, Blake said.
“We have no confirmation of a live wolf in the South Cascades. That seems a little bit crazy to me,” he said. “I have to believe wolves are there, and we just haven’t spotted them.
“The sooner we get some information, it helps all of us develop a response.”
Meanwhile, wolves saturate northeast Washington, according to the department. With statewide recovery apparently still far into the future, ranchers and elected officials there say they need more leeway in controlling wolves.
Wolf advocates, however, are suing in Western Washington counties without wolves to further restrict wildlife managers by taking away lethal control.