Counting Wolves in Washington State

This adventurous video documents the variety of techniques and tools used to count wild wolves during the annual Washington State Wolf Census

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At the end of each year, Washington state wildlife officials count its wild wolves. This annual census begins at the end of November, after the animals have come together to form packs. Because they are not scattered across the landscape, counting wolves in winter seems like a simple project. But Washington encompasses a vast area with complex topography, making it a long, difficult, and dangerous task.

Historically, gray wolves, Canis lupuswere common throughout Washington State, but by the 1930s had been wiped out by outright hunting, trapping, and poisoning, especially by cattle and sheep ranchers.

But despite this widespread persecution, wolves have reintroduced themselves to their original range. Recovering populations throughout British Columbia, Canada, as well as Idaho and Montana were sources of wolves now returning to their former range. These wolves are managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and tribal biologists, using a citizen-developed plan to address conflicts with livestock and impacts on other wildlife.

Although wolves have a reputation for killing livestock, many people believe that we can live alongside wolves, and that thoughtful wolf recovery, conservation and management practices are critically important to achieving this. long-term; for humans, for wolves and for other wildlife. But for that to happen, you have to know how many wolves are out there and where they are.

According to the most recent annual report available (here), there are now at least 206 wolves in 33 packs in Washington State in 2021, with 19 successful breeding pairs. As a result of these collaborative management efforts, only 3.8% of the state’s wolf population has been intentionally killed each year (ref). This is in stark contrast to the three Rocky Mountain states, which routinely kill 25-35% of their wolf populations each year.

But how did they arrive at these numbers? WDFW biologists use a variety of methods to survey wolves, including helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, snowmobiles, tranquilizer dart guns — and even rubber-legged traps. But these methods come with significant risks for both wolves and biologists; dangers like flying a helicopter up a snowy mountain in the fog.

Most of the geographic data that WDFW relies on comes from wolves wearing radio collars.

“Every time you put on a collar, you stress that animal,” said WDFW biologist Ben Maletzke. “You run the risk of injuring or killing this animal.”

“You risk injuring or killing yourself if you fly a helicopter,” he added.

The risks are great enough that the focus is now on developing and using safer, non-invasive approaches to monitoring wolves, such as camera traps and AudioMoths, which are tiny acoustic recording devices. inexpensive and easy to deploy that allow researchers to listen to wolf howls. .

This adventurous video shows how the WDFW wolf team do their annual census and the many different tools they use.

This video originally appeared in biographicalan independent multimedia nature and conservation magazine powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

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