Wolves in the Land of Salmon

Tracking canis lupus’ return to the Northwest

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Last month, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife released findings from their 2012 statewide survey of gray wolf populations, confirming “at least 51 wolves in nine wolf packs with a total of five successful breeding pairs.” This represents an astounding doubling of the number of wolves in the Evergreen State in one year.

Reports of canis lupus moving back into Cascadia have been scattered in media over the past several years. People have heard their distinctive howls from Hozomeen on the Canadian border to Teanaway, less than 100 miles east of Seattle. Their reappearance and rapid distribution have taken many by surprise, with developments happening so quickly it’s been a challenge to keep up with the latest news.

Enter Wolves in the Land of Salmon by Carnation-based naturalist, author and educator David Moskowitz. In his new book, he pulls together the many strands of wolf recovery in the Pacific Northwest—natural history, politics, landscape variables—into an invaluable compendium of up-to-date information, written in an exceedingly straightforward, scientific and balanced manner.

Moskowitz, a trained tracker sensitive to reading signs on the land, takes the reader on a journey from the perspective of the wolf, and his writing is informed by on-the-ground experiences as he seeks to better understand our new packs across varied regions including the North Cascades, Blue Mountains, Selkirks, and Columbia Highlands.

Christian Martin: Why have wolves suddenly appeared in so many areas across Washington?
David Moskowitz: Wolf populations can grow quite quickly once they establish a foothold in a landscape. They have a high reproductive rate for a large carnivore. Young adults will either disperse to adjacent areas to where they were born or they may travel several hundred miles before settling down.

CM: Are there benefits to Washington wolves repopulating naturally as opposed to translocation?
DM: Allowing wolves to naturally repopulate in the state is less expensive and less likely to trigger people who are suspicious of the government and its intentions related to managing landscapes.

CM: What are some of the differences between wolves most people are used to hearing about in the Rocky Mountains versus the ones repopulating Washington from coastal British Columbia?
DM: There is far more similar than different between wolves across the Pacific Northwest. However, coastal wolves are currently classified as a different subspecies than the wolves that occupy the interior of our region.  Ecologically, they have adapted to the unique coastal rainforest habitat. This shows up in their behavior—traveling along shorelines and swimming between islands extensively. It also shows up in their diet.

CM: What are the benefits to our local ecosystems in having wolves back in the web?
DM: How wolves alter ecosystem dynamics in the state will really depend on how we manage wolves, including how many wolves we allow to persist and where we accept their presence.

Their influence on the behavior and population of game animals such as deer and elk is the biggest way that they influence ecosystem dynamics. Large ungulates can significantly deteriorate many aspects of a landscape in large numbers over time without predators. A recovered population of wolves, paired with the presence of other large carnivores, can shift how prey species use the landscape, change population sizes of prey species and change the foraging behavior of prey species.

These changes in turn affect how herbivores impact plant communities, potentially allowing trees and shrubs in sensitive habitats to rebound, which can lead to increased habitat value for a wide variety of other species such as birds and beavers. Changes in these species of wildlife in turn cause more ecological ripples across an ecosystem.

CM: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to wolf recovery in Washington?
DM: The biggest obstacles to wolf recovery are deciding as a society how we wish to accommodate wolves in the state. Humans extirpated wolves from the state very intentionally in the 20th century. The only reason they have now returned is because our society as a whole has decided to tolerate their presence again. Finding a path for wolf management will be a continual challenge.

CM: Do you think that Washington is taking wolf recovery in the right direction?
DM: Washington’s Wolf Management Plan is probably the most progressive and scientifically and socially well-thought-out management plan of any western state currently. If the state follows the guidelines for managing wolves in the state set out in this plan, wolf populations will almost certainly recover across much of the state, there will still be a huge livestock industry in the state and people will still have ample deer and elk hunting opportunities.

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