Washingtonians’ have such a fascination with wolves that we see them pretty much everywhere.
We’re not always seeing wolves, of course. Sometimes that wolf we’re seeing is actually a dog. A wolf-dog hybrid. A coyote. A fox. Or a wisp of imagination.
What makes these sightings — or imagined sightings — so intriguing, though, is the very real possibility of them actually being wolves, even in places where their presence remains undocumented.
“I think wolves can move just about anywhere,” said Scott Becker, state wolf biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Probably the only places in Washington where wolves probably won’t exist for a long term would be the agricultural fields in Central Washington. They can spring up just about anywhere.”
Which means there could conceivably be wolves in the Ahtanum, or on Darland Mountain, or Jumpoff Meadows, places where tales about wolf sightings abounded during this fall’s elk and deer seasons.
On Sunday, Dec. 1, a hunter reported seeing four wolves trotting down a game trail two minutes after “a deer ran by, obviously spooked. “The last (wolf) stopped and stared at me about 15 yards away for about 30 seconds, I yelled ‘Hey’ and it ran off ...”
The hunter reported the incident on the WDFW’s online wolf sightings reporting site (http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/reporting/sightings.html), where nearly 1,200 reports have been filed over the last couple of years.
The site includes this caveat in bold letters:
Please note: these sites are unconfirmed and do not constitute proof of wolf activity in the areas displayed.
Still, state wildlife officials try to check out most of the reports, just in case. After some muzzleloader hunters in the upper Cowiche drainage reported hearing what sounded like wolves howling and sent the WDFW a photograph of what appeared to be a wolf track, WDFW wildlife technician Ben Maletzke headed to the area to see for himself.
“I spent a day looking around Rimrock and then up around Ahtanum and Nasty Creek, searched that area and worked my way up to Dome Peak to see if I could see any sign, scat or anything,” said Maletzke, who found no such evidence.
“The track looked like a canine track for sure,” Maletzke said. “It looked bigger than a coyote, but I couldn’t say specifically that it was a wolf track.”
But neither Maletzke nor Becker is discounting the possibility that anecdotal reports of wolves in the Ahtanum area and beyond are real.
“We get so many reports that turn out to be coyotes or dogs or even lions, we have to be able to confirm it before we can put a dot on the (confirmed wolf sightings) map,” Becker said. “But there’s a lot of the right kind of terrain and prey down there, so it’s only a matter of time before they do show up there.”
State biologists are urging hunters or other backcountry recreationists to take photographs of animals they believe to be wolves.
“They’re definitely moving south, slowly but surely,” said Don Cooper, an avid hiker and Cascadians member. “But you have to have pictures, or nobody will believe you.”
Even photographs, though, can be deceiving. During this past modern firearm elk season, hunters’ walkie-talkies were hopping with “Hey, did you guys see that wolf?” chatter. And after a Selah hunter named Seth Sandland e-mailed a buddy a photo of a black-furred, wolf-like creature he saw in the Ahtanum the day before the season began, the photo began making the rounds in a big way.
“Since I’ve had that picture, I’ve had a host of people come to me about (seeing) wolves in this area,” said Sandland. “Two days later we heard some chirps on the radio, where people were running into wolves up there, gray ones.
“And when I was up there, the guy who was hunting next to us, we picked him up and gave him a ride to his camp, and he said there was a huge gray wolf out there — like great Dane size, his back was as high as your hip.”
From a distance, the animal Sandland saw looked pretty large, too — “about the size of my lab,” he recalled. “It just sat there and stared at us and then turned and walked away, not spooked, not scared or intimidated by the vehicles or by us.”
Most of the people who saw Sandland’s photo believed, like Sandland, that it was a wolf. But when WDFW wildlife biologist Dave Volsen — who spent much of last winter monitoring the Wenatchee Pack — saw the photo, he became genuinely excited for a very different reason.
The photo, he said, was almost certainly of a Cascade red fox, which sometimes actually has black fur and “might be as rare a picture in Washington State as wolves,” Volsen said. “They’re very rarely seen, and many people spend hours trying to find these animals and document their range. It’s a very rare sighting. Very few people get to see or, certainly, get a photograph of a Cascade red fox.
“That’s fascinating. That’s a beautiful picture of a Cascade red fox.”
The next time Sandland or another hunter in the Ahtanum takes a photo of what looks like a wolf, though, it may very well be one.
“We never discount a sighting any more based on location, because there’s a high possibility a wolf could show up anywhere due to dispersal,” Volsen said. “We know we have a pack in the Teanaway. We could have dispersers coming out of there and going to the south.”