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Ambitious study underway on wolf impact

Map courtesy of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

OLYMPIA, Washington – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the University of Washington are beginning a collaborative study to determine how eight years of growth in the state’s wolf population is affecting deer and elk as well as other predators.

The study, which is scheduled to last for at least five years, will assess the health of deer and elk herds in northeast Washington and the impact the spread of wolves might be having on hunting and other recreational activities.

“The experience in other western states shows that wolves and other predators may affect the size and behavior of deer and elk herds,” WDFW Wildlife Program Director Eric Gardner said. “We want to take a closer look at the situation here in Washington state as our own wolf population continues to grow.”

Researchers will also be examining the response to wolves by other predators, especially cougars, Gardner said. The study is expected to dovetail with another project on moose already underway in northeast Washington.

As of June 2016, WDFW had confirmed there are 19 wolf packs with at least 90 wolves in the state, which is a big jump from one pack with five wolves in 2008. Most of the growth in the state is occurring in the area that the study will encompass. In January, research scientists and field biologists began capturing deer, elk, and cougars. They have been fitted with radio collars. The capture techniques included trapping, baiting, steering animals into nets, and darting them with immobilization drugs from helicopters.

The goal is to keep 65 white-tailed deer, 50 elk, and 10 cougars collared in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. In addition, researchers plan to collar 100 mule deer and 10 cougars in the Okanogan County area.

Some wolves in those areas are already radio collared, but researchers want to maintain collars on at least two wolves in each pack within the study area, according to WDFW Wildlife Program Chief Scientist John Pierce.

He asks that hunters who take a collared deer or elk contact the department so researchers can recover the collar.

UW students will help research scientists and field biologists to monitor the animals and track their movements, habitat use, diet, productivity and survival. Cougars will be monitored to learn about changes in social behavior, prey selection and predation rates in areas where wolves are also present. Progress reports about the study will be shared periodically over the coming years.

“This study concentrates on multiple-use lands used by people for activities such as logging, livestock ranching, and hunting,” Pierce said. “In that way, it differs from most other studies on the impact of wolves, which tend to be conducted in national parks and other protected areas.”

The five year study is funded by the a legislative appropriation of $400,000, $450,000 in federal Pittman-Robertson funds, $150,000 of WDFW money and nearly $900,000 in National Science Foundation funds that were secured by the university.

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