Washington's gray wolf population recovering, warning issued for hikers

Gray wolves aren't new to Washington state, but wildlife experts are reporting promising findings in recovery efforts for the species. 

According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the wolf population in Washington grew 20% in 2023.

The largest concentration of the species is mostly out east of the mountains, but experts say they're moving west-- and fast. But clusters have been spotted in the Tenaway forest area, around Cle Elum and Suncadia. 

There is also another cluster north of that, just east of Stevens Pass. 

Before the 1900s, wolves roamed through most of the state. However, they were hunted and killed so much so that there were none left in the state for decades. 

"We here in Washington are so lucky that we’ve seen 15 consecutive years of wolf population growth," said Julia Smith of the WDFW.

The population has grown so much in recent years that Smith said the state will consider downgrading gray wolves on the endangered species list. 

"Historically here in Washington, wolves were distributed statewide, with the exception of perhaps the Columbia Basin," Smith said. "And that’s actually where we expect them to recover to, with the exception of where we have cities places like Seattle and Olympia."

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Jason Knight with Alderleaf Wilderness College spent years tracking them in Idaho. He says all they need is a reliable food source: enough elk and deer to hunt.

"I would not be surprised to see wolves in western Washington and on the Olympic Peninsula any point in time in the next few years," Knight said. 

While most encounters with humans and wolves don't end up being dangerous, wildlife officials still warn to keep a lookout. 

Wildlife officials specifically are warning hikers with dog owners, particularly in the Enchantments area, North Cascades and Okanagon woods. It's important to keep your dog on a leash in case wolves are near. Having a noisy collar for your dog can also be helpful. 

"If a dog is about to encounter a wolf, the dog should be brought to heel at the owner’s side as quickly as possible and leashed.  Standing between the dog and the wolf often ends the encounter. To avoid risk of injury to yourself, do not attempt to break up a physical fight between a wolf and a dog except by using bear spray or a powerful hose from a safe distance," Western Wildlife Outreach says.

"If wolf wants you to leave, they may come and show themselves to you on a trail – they might do what’s called a bark howl."

If you do encounter a wolf on a trail, Western Wildlife Outreach recommends you do the following: 

  • Stand tall and make themselves look larger.
  • Calmly but slowly back away and maintain eye contact.
  • If the wolf does not run away immediately, continue making yourself large, keeping eye contact, and backing away.
  • Do not turn your back on the wolf or run away.
  • If the wolf does not retreat and is acting aggressive by holding its tail high, raising its hackles, barking or howling, you should yell and throw things at it while continuing to back away. If it attacks, fight back aggressively to show you are too dangerous to attack.

However, it is important to note that there are only a couple hundred wolves in Washington, so the chance of encountering one is slim. Wildlife officials remind campers and hikers also be on the lookout for bears and cougars, whose combined population is in the thousands. 


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