Wolves in Washington

Gray Wolf Fact Sheet

May 2011

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is listed and protected as endangered in Washington under state law (RCW77.15.120) and protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the western two-thirds of Washington.  Wolves in the eastern third of Washington were removed from federal protection on May 5, 2011. 

Wolves were formerly common throughout most of the state, but declined rapidly because of trapping, poisoning, and hunting as ranching and farming by European-American settlers expanded between 1850 and 1900. By the 1930’s, wolves were no longer considered a breeding species in the state. Infrequent reports of animals continued in the following decades, suggesting that individuals continued to disperse into Washington from neighboring states and British Columbia.

Reliable reports of wolves have increased in Washington since 2005, many of which have involved single animals. A pack with pups was confirmed in July 2008 in western Okanogan and northern Chelan counties and represented the first fully documented breeding by wolves in the state since the 1930’s. Evidence gathered during the summer of 2010 suggests that the female from this pack is missing; the status of the pack is uncertain.  A second pack with pups was confirmed in Pend Oreille County in July 2009.  A pup from a pack that is likely using Washington and British Columbia habitat was radio-collared in 2010 in northeastern Washington.  Another pack may exist in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington, but has not yet been confirmed.

See map of wolf packs in Washington State

There are no federal or state plans to reintroduce wolves into Washington. Wolves are dispersing into eastern Washington and the North Cascades on their own from adjacent populations in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and British Columbia. State and federal wildlife authorities are monitoring the activity of resident wolves to learn more about their use of habitat and to reduce potential conflicts.

Wolves are shy by nature and avoid contact with humans. As with other wildlife, wolves should never be fed or approached to avoid habituation to people. Campsites and other areas of human occupation should be kept free of accessible garbage or food. In the very rare chance of a close encounter with a wolf, people should take the same steps as with cougars and bears to avoid problems – stand tall, act aggressively, raise your voice or shout, don’t run, and slowly back away while facing the animal.

Wolves usually consider domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) as territorial threats and may attack and kill them. Responsible dog owners need to keep pets safe when recreating or living in wild country. Dogs should be kept on a leash or kept close by when walking or hiking in areas with wolves.

Although wild wolves primarily feed on elk, deer, and moose, they will occasionally prey on domestic livestock.  Livestock producers can prevent or reduce the chance of such attacks in several ways, including removal of sick, injured, or dead livestock from grazing areas, use of herders and guard dogs, keeping livestock in pens or corrals at night, and delay of livestock turnout on grazing areas with wolves until after calving.

Because wolves are listed as a state and federal endangered species, it is illegal to kill, harm or harass them. Wolf sightings and suspected wolf depredation on domestic animals should be reported to federal or state authorities who will investigate incidents and take appropriate action to resolve problems.

If a livestock depredation by wolves is confirmed, the livestock owner may be eligible to receive compensation for the animal(s) lost.  The private non-profit group, Defenders of Wildlife, funded compensation to livestock operators for confirmed and probable wolf killed-livestock through the Bailey Wildlife Compensation Fund through September 30, 2010.  If funds are available, livestock operators in Washington may be eligible for compensation from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for livestock losses determined to be confirmed or probable wolf kills.  Funding for proactive measures to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts may be available from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife or the Defenders of Wildlife Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund.   

To report sightings of a wolf or wolf tracks use WDFW's Online Wolf Reporting Form or call 1-877-933-9847. To report suspected wolf depredation on livestock, contact the WDFW toll-free Reporting Hotline at 1-877-933-9847.

Wolf natural history

Gray wolves are about twice the size of commonly seen coyotes, measuring up to six feet in length, including tail, around 30 inches in height at the shoulder, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds. Males are somewhat larger than females. Compared to coyotes, wolves have larger, blockier muzzles, and shorter, more rounded ears. Compared to wolves, coyotes usually have shorter, bushier tails. Wolves vary in color, including black, white and shades of gray and brown.

Wolf tracks are about five inches long by four inches wide, with four symmetrical toes and evident claws, and a single lobe on the front of the foot pad. Coyote tracks are similar, but about half that size; even the largest dog breeds usually have smaller tracks. The paths of wolves usually show a direct, energy-efficient or purposeful route, whereas those of dogs often meander.

Wolves are highly social and live in packs. The pack usually consists of a dominant breeding pair (an alpha male and alpha female), their offspring from the previous year, and new pups. Other breeding-age adults may be present. The pack hunts, feeds, travels, and rests together. It also shares pup-rearing responsibilities, including hunting and tending pups. Pack size is highly variable, but commonly averages 4 to11 animals.

Wolves normally do not breed until two or three years of age. Mating usually occurs in mid- to late February, followed by the birth of pups two months later.  Litters average four to six pups. Most packs produce only one litter annually. Dens are often in underground burrows, but can occur in abandoned beaver lodges, hollow trees, and shallow rock caves. As pups grow older, they are taken from the den to a protected location known as a rendezvous site. One or more rendezvous sites are used over the summer until the pups are large enough to travel and hunt with the pack.

With their large body size, powerful jaws, large teeth, speed, endurance, and habit of hunting in packs, wolves are keenly adapted to hunt large prey. In the central and northern Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada, elk are often the favored prey, but deer and moose are more important in some areas. Despite their hunting abilities, the majority of wolf hunts are unsuccessful. Wolves are selective hunters and tend to prey mainly on younger, older, and debilitated animals. This can leave prey herds with more animals of prime age and in good health, thereby enhancing productivity.

Wolves will also scavenge carrion and eat smaller animals. They also kill and feed on domestic livestock, especially cattle and sheep.

A pack establishes a territory and defends it against neighboring packs. Territory boundaries and sizes can vary from year to year, but usually average about 140-400 square miles. Territory size is often smaller when prey is common and other packs live nearby.

Howling is a common behavior in wolves that helps pack members communicate and stay together. Howls can be heard from as far as five miles away. The howls of wolves tend to be long and drawn out compared to the shorter yapping sounds made by coyotes. Wolves also growl and bark.

Most young wolves leave their birth pack at two to three years of age to search for a mate and to start a new pack of their own. Dispersing wolves move about 60 miles on average, but can travel more than 500 miles.

Few wolves live more than 5 years in the wild, although individuals have been known to reach 12 years of age.

In the northwestern United States, most wolves die from human causes such as control efforts to stop livestock depredation or illegal hunting. However, in areas where wolves are fully protected, such as large national parks, most wolves die from territorial conflicts with wolves in neighboring packs, starvation, or disease.

Wolves are highly adaptable and can live in a variety of habitats as long as sufficient prey is available. In the northwestern United States and western Canada, wolves are most common in forested areas with relatively flat, open spaces such as river valleys and basins where prey are easier to chase and catch. Wolf populations fare best in areas where conflicts with humans are low. These tend to be locations with extensive public lands, few or no livestock, few roads, and low human densities.

Wolves can benefit natural plant and animal communities in a number of ways. Wolf predation can prevent the overpopulation of prey, thereby helping maintain the natural occurrence of some plant and other wildlife species in ecosystems. (For example, in Olympic National Park where wolves were eliminated, over-browsing by too many elk during the past 80-100 years has caused substantial changes in riparian habitats, including severe declines in small and medium-sized cottonwood and maple trees.)

Increased availability of wolf-killed carcasses can help scavenging animals, such as black bears, grizzly bears, wolverines, foxes, mink, ravens, magpies, jays, crows, golden eagles, bald eagles, and vultures, especially during winter when other foods become scarce.