PULLMAN, Wash. – With wolves moving into the state, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in spring 2011 had a problem. It needed a plan to manage the big predators, especially with regard to livestock and large game animals.
But unless the management plan was solid and science-based, wolves would continue to be protected as an endangered species, limiting the state’s options.
Lacking resources and needing independent expertise, WDFW turned to Rob Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University’s School of the Environment.
To create a management plan, WDFW had to know how many wolves would constitute a viable population in the state.
To be considered viable, wolf numbers and distribution had to reach a critical mass to ensure genetic diversity and periodic interbreeding of neighboring packs. The animals needed to be managed so the population persisted for at least 50 years.
Since wolves are social animals, and not all adults breed, wildlife scientists prefer to count population by the number of packs and breeding pairs, as opposed to individual animals.
For their population study, Wielgus and post-doctoral researcher Ben Maletzke took data on wolf birth and survival rates from Idaho and Montana. They applied these to areas in Washington likely to hold wolves, adjusting for differences in landscape, and then forecast a viable wolf population for Washington.
“By having a population viability analysis,” said Maletzke, “Fish and Wildlife could address selective wolf removal.”
In December 2011, WDFW released its “Wolf Conservation and Management Plan,” which specified that a recovered population of wolves in Washington would have at least 15 breeding pairs or 23 packs for at least three consecutive years.
Wielgus said the WDFW “wanted to avoid what happened in other states that had politically based solutions. They ended up in court forever. This plan, because it is science based, should withstand court challenges.”
Indeed, to date, no legal challenge has been mounted to the Washington plan.
“If that’s not an indicator of success,” Wielgus said of the analysis, “I don’t know what is.” He also hopes the Washington plan will be a model for wolf recovery in the United States.
Wielgus next intends to study wolf-livestock interaction.
“Some areas with wolves have a lot more livestock damage than other areas. We need to find out why,” he said.
With that information, the state could predict where damage is most likely to occur, allowing ranchers to make management changes to prevent livestock loss.
Find more information about the work at WSU’s Large Carnivore Conservation Lab here.