OLYMPIA, Wash. — Wolves are more numerous and more widely distributed than an official count shows and are likely to be established statewide sooner than expected, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Unsworth said Thursday.
“It won’t be long before we’ll be, hopefully, in a situation where we can delist wolves both on the state and federal levels, and we can move forward on management and figure out how we can deal with that critter,” Unsworth told a Senate committee.
In an interview afterward, Unsworth said he can’t predict a year, but called WDFW’s estimate that wolves will be roaming and breeding in the wild statewide by 2021 “conservative.”
“It’s apparent it’s a matter of time before wolves are widely distributed around the state,” he said.
Unsworth became director in January. Previously, he was deputy director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
He introduced himself to the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee and touched on several subjects, including wolves.
On Friday, WDFW released its 2014 wolf count and reported it had confirmed 68 wolves in the state, a 30 percent increase over 2013. The number of packs increased from 12 to 16.
The number of confirmed breeding pairs, however, has been stuck since 2012 at five, with four in northeast Washington.
Under the state’s wolf recovery plan, wolves won’t be eligible to be taken off the state’s endangered species list until breeding pairs are more evenly distributed and number at least 15.
Because the number of wolves and packs is growing, breeding pairs are apparently going undetected, Unsworth said.
“I would say there are more than five breeding pairs,” he said. “Obviously, there are breeding pairs out there where there are packs showing up.”
Lawmakers from northeast Washington are pushing for revisions to the wolf plan, saying the predators are a growing financial threat in their part of the state, while the documented spread of wolves has been frustratingly slow.
The Senate and House have passed similar bills calling on WDFW to reconsider aspects of the wolf plan, including whether packs, rather than breeding pairs, should be the benchmark for recovery.
“I think it’s probably a better metric than breeding pairs,” Unsworth said. “It’s easier to document packs and their distribution.”
While breeding pairs may be hard to find, “packs become pretty apparent on the landscape,” Unsworth said.
WDFW says wolves are hard to count and some, maybe a third, go unconfirmed. The department adds a wolf to the count after multiple confirmations of its presence.
Sightings reported to WDFW suggest wolves are spreading out from the northeast, Unsworth said. “I learned in Idaho that if someone said they say they saw a wolf, there’s a good chance they saw a wolf.”