May 20, 2015
Shawn Cantrell

Wolf Recovery in Washington State

If you keep up on wolf happenings in the news, you may have seen a headline or two about a wolf that was killed by a vehicle on I-90 between North Bend and Snoqualmie, just outside of Seattle. While this incident may seem trivial at first glance, it’s really part of a much larger story on the history and future of wolf conservation in Washington.

Eight years ago there wasn’t a single confirmed wolf in Washington – all had been eradicated after decades of aggressive predator control programs, including the poisoning and trapping of gray wolves. Endangered Species Act protections ultimately changed all that and today there is a population of at least 68 wolves in Washington. And until that discovery earlier this month, all known wolves were confined to the eastern portion of the state where they had safely migrated from adjacent Canada and Idaho after their reintroduction in that state in the mid 90’s.

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Wolf, © ODFW

Wolves require large amounts of acreage to roam and like most wild animals, they seek out new habitat as needed. Those seeking a balanced future for wolves in the west have always hoped that wolves would someday start moving from east to west in Washington to reclaim vast, unoccupied and historic wolf habitat in areas of the state like the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Olympic National Park.

The wolf killed on Interstate-90 is the first confirmed wolf to cross over the Cascade Crest in Washington since they were wiped out in the state in the 1900s. So while the death of this wolf is tragic, it provides proof that wolves are now dispersing into western Washington, a truly exciting development in Washington’s ongoing wolf recovery story.

Yet while nature enthusiasts are thrilled by this sign of progress, a sad animosity towards wolves in Washington has also surfaced. Wolves are too often painted as “controversial” and worse even before they’ve gotten their foot in the door in a given region. Northeastern Washington has become a hotbed for anti-wolf groups who relentlessly spout falsehoods about wolves in the media. Sadly, this anti-wolf rhetoric is now being echoed by some in the halls of Congress.

Gray wolf, © Tracy Brooks/USFWS

In April, Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA) co-sponsored a bill that would delist gray wolves throughout Washington, Oregon and Utah. Even though wolves in eastern Washington were congressionally delisted a few years ago, if federal protections are removed for wolves in western Washington, it will be far more difficult for wolves to move safely from east to west, which will make it much harder for wolves to establish new populations and continue their recovery within the state. But I think most would agree that we should leave scientific questions about wildlife and wolf recovery to wildlife scientists and not in the hands of Congress.

What we need to do is to learn how to live—“coexist”—alongside wolves. Based on current research, that is something most Washingtonians are ready to do. This means working with ranchers and livestock owners in western Washington to help them implement on-the-ground nonlethal tools and strategies to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts. And in several locations in eastern Washington, these tools are already being used with great success by ranchers who see the value in this proactive approach.

Wolves were once completely exterminated in Washington. Now we have a second chance to conserve wolves and restore a vital part of our state’s natural heritage. And, we have the tools and resources to get it done. While this lone wolf’s death on I-90 may seem insignificant, his story signals a major benchmark for just how far wolf recovery has come. In eight short years we’ve brought the wolf population from zero to 68. Today, wolf recovery is no longer a distant dream and we can legitimately envision wolves living in western Washington.

The future for wolves in Washington looks increasingly bright, but only if we remain committed and act together to support their continued recovery.


Shawn Cantrell headshot

Shawn Cantrell

Vice President, Field Conservation Programs
Shawn Cantrell oversees the work of Defenders in the field.

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