Wolves in Washington
Lessons from the Yellowstone Wolf Project
By Ilona Popper
In 2008, I watched three wolves kill a bull elk in Yellowstone National Park. It was the first time I’d looked up close at predation. I was a half-mile away, looking through a spotting scope.
The three wolves were led by 527F, a sturdy black female, who had been radio-collared and numbered by Yellowstone Wolf Project personnel. Joining her were two uncollared wolves: a dark female and a large gray male. The male was so young, however, as to be mostly useless in this hunt.
As an excerpt from my field notes on that day reveals, the task of predation takes wolves to the limits of their endurance:
February 7, 2008:
The wolves were chasing an elk … I saw two wolves attach to the back legs and another grabbing the throat … 527F kept closing on the bull’s throat. The bull would stand, lift her off her feet and shake her off. This occurred at least three times. Once when the elk fell, the wolves let go and just sat on the snow beside him as if needing to catch their breaths. All four animals panted together, like athletic teammates during a break. The gray male stood in the rear, taking in the scenery. After awhile, the bull stood and the wolves resumed trying to kill him…
Wolves in Washington
This spring, 6 miles into the backcountry, hikers spotted wolf tracks along the shores of Lake Ross. Further investigation by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) confirmed that, for the first time since the 1930s, a wolf pack is in residence on the west side of the North Cascades. The Hozameen pack “spends most of its time in B.C. and overlaps into the Hozameen area when snow melts,” said Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager at WDFW.
While wolves first appeared in Washington in 2005, there was no documented resident pack until 2008. Then a wolf from the Idaho/B.C. border hooked up with a disperser from coastal B.C. and created the Lookout pack, which still thrives in the Methow valley. As of December 2013, there were at least 52 wolves in Washington. Martorello said it’s still early days in the march towards Washington’s state recovery objective: 15 successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years, equally distributed among three recovery areas: eastern Washington, the northern Cascades, and the southern Cascades and northwest coast.
“In the past six years, we’ve seen about a 39 percent annual increase of wolves; the exact same sort of growth Idaho, Montana and Wyoming saw in their early years of recovery,” he said. Wolves were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain states in 1995. If wolf populations are healthy and there’s enough food, young adult wolves disperse and form new packs. A pack like the Hozameen is the sign: wolves are moving into your neck of the woods.
How likely are wolves to spread into Whatcom County? “We certainly expect it,” said Martorello. “There are enough prey – deer – at lower elevations.”
Lessons from Montana
What can Washingtonians anticipate about living with wolves?
As a Montanan who lives on the edge of Yellowstone Park’s northern range, a hotspot for wolves, I’ve had a crash course in wolf biology and the debates over
Certain facts prove reassuring: Wolves are almost never a danger to people. In the history of North America there have only been two documented human deaths, in Canada and Alaska, attributed to wolves. Some wolf experts contend that one of those was actually caused by bears. If you encounter wolves in the backcountry, take a good look before they vanish like smoke. If they’re curious and linger, yell and they’ll clear out.
Similarly, the killing of livestock by wolves, called depredation, has always been low in the Rocky Mountain states. In 2013 in Montana, 78 cows, sheep and other stock were killed by wolves, total. Domestic dogs kill more livestock than wolves do.
The Nature of the beast: Coursing hunters
Yet, there’s no question wolves are predators. What will wolves do to Washington’s ungulate populations – moose, deer and elk?
Wolves are a paradoxical mix of tough-as-nails and skittish-about-life-and-limb. That February day, 527F finally finished off the bull elk, gripping his throat as he battered her from side to side. Once the kill was done, she rested for 40 minutes before eating. Until then, I’d never thought about how exhausting and difficult it is for wolves to kill. I’d assumed that predators found killing easy. Instead, I learned that living as predators places wolves at the edge of their strength, precisely because they prey on animals much larger than themselves.
Wolves are coursing, or cursorial, hunters. Coursers are running hunters. Wolves are like marathoners; chasing, wounding and tiring their prey before risking the final killing bites. Wolves are limited by their evolutionary choices as the smallest of the mega-carnivores in relation to their prey. Coyotes differ from wolves in that they hunt much smaller prey – usually rodents. Wolves routinely take down animals 10 times their size. So, wolves must choose weakened animals, attack from behind and retreat when faced down.
Cougars, in contrast, ambush prey and cannot sustain long runs. Cougars succeed in killing prey about 85 percent of the time, while wolves kill only about 15 percent of their quarry.
Wolves, as apex predators, are vulnerable to being stomped or killed by prey, losing their kills to marauding bears and scavengers and to starvation.
Lessons from the Yellowstone Wolf Project
How many wolves are too many? Won’t they keep growing until they eat through their supply of prey?
Answers come to us from Yellowstone’s Wolf Project, a nearly 20-year scientific study of what makes wolf populations grow. Yellowstone is one of the few places in the world where wolves are both protected from human interference and intensively studied. These factors make the wolf studies in Yellowstone all the more valuable because they more accurately reflect the behavior of wild wolf populations. The data from Yellowstone shows us how wolves and ungulates balance out.
“The dogma on wolves is that the number of wolves in an area is determined by food,” said Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project. It’s called the biomass theory. Biologists have long known that wolves self-regulate when food is scarce. If their prey is culled by a particularly heavy winter, for instance, wolves cannot find enough weakened animals to kill. The next spring, the elk herds are smaller, but the individuals are strong. After several such winters in
Yellowstone, wolf numbers plummeted. Unlike ungulates, wolves and other predators don’t eat through their food supply. When elk numbers drop, wolves start starving. They don’t ovulate, give birth or provide sufficient nourishment to their young, and they are vulnerable to diseases like mange.
Now, Yellowstone data is adding to the biomass theory. Collaborating Yellowstone, British, and Utah biologists have learned wolves also self-regulate when there is more than enough food, but not enough space to disperse. According to a paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology, “In Yellowstone the density of wolves begins reducing the wolf population because they kill each other,” said Smith.
In lean times, wolves self-regulate by foregoing reproduction, while in fat times, wolves kill other wolves in territorial disputes if they are overcrowded. It’s not surprising then that so far science does not show that higher wolf populations are the main cause for declines in deer and elk populations.
Wolves in your backyard?
Scott Fitkin, a WDFW biologist, says we can live with wolves: “The take-home message for residents of Washington, many of whom have lived for most of their lives with cougars and bears on the landscape, is that wolves are just another large carnivore. There’s a lot of hype and emotion that tends to circulate around wolves. The issues get blown out of proportion. We have the ability to manage conflict and to live alongside these animals.”
Ilona Popper, poet and naturalist, lives near Yellowstone National Park and writes about wildlife. She’s currently working on a book about observing and living among wild wolves.
Her blog is ilonapopper.wordpress.com. x