Wolf counts

Wolf researcher Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, talks after a presentation to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources April 24 in Olympia.

OLYMPIA — More work needs to be done before estimating Washington’s wolf population, a University of Washington biologist said April 24, pulling back on a remark he made in January that there are likely far more wolves than counted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The director of UW’s Center for Conservation Biology, Samuel Wasser, said he regrets implying that his research suggests the state has closer to 200 wolves, about 70 more than Fish and Wildlife’s count. The remark, made to the Senate agriculture committee, drew media attention.

“To be honest, I had no idea the bomb that would explode,” Wasser said after a presentation to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “I never should have done that.”

Wasser and Fish and Wildlife are collaborating to estimate the wolf population. The department classifies wolves as endangered throughout Washington, but is evaluating their status. The review is due in December.

Fish and Wildlife tallied at least 126 wolves in late 2018. At that time of year, the population is at its lowest because of the high rate of pup mortality.

The department stresses the count, made the same way every year to be consistent, is conservative. “This is just the minimum. We know there are more out there,” Fish and Wildlife wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello said.

To find wolves, Wasser uses dogs trained to sniff the scat of large carnivores.

In Wasser’s most recent research in northeast Washington, conducted in 2016-17, the dogs sniffed out scat from 69 different wolves. Wasser said he believes the dogs find all or almost all the wolves. The speculative number of 200 was based on projecting the findings over a larger area.

While there are probably more than 126 wolves, Wasser said he doesn’t have enough information to contradict Fish and Wildlife. “I can’t say whether the number is good or bad,” he said.

More recently, scat-detection dogs have been sniffing in the South Cascades, south of Interstate 90 almost to Oregon. Only a small number of samples have been tested to find out whether they came from a wolf, coyote or dog. So far, no wolf scat has been found south of I-90.

More than 1,000 other samples are waiting to be tested. Those results may be available in about two months, Wasser said.

According to the state’s wolf plan, the animal’s recovery won’t be complete until it is breeding in the South Cascades or across the mountains in Southwest Washington.

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, whose district stretches from the South Cascades to the southwest coast, said he looked forward to an update.

“I think we’ll all be interested to know what we find out in a couple months,” he said.

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