Aside from werewolves in the fictional “Twilight” series set near Forks, actual gray wolves haven’t inhabited Olympic National Park for almost a century. But a recent study found that the Olympics could be a suitable place to reintroduce the species.
The report, conducted by Oregon State University ecology professor William Ripple and postdoctoral faculty Christopher Wolf, looked at hundreds of potential “rewilding” sites — areas around the world where threatened large carnivores once lived and could be reintroduced.
Due to the large size of Olympic National Park, its abundant prey species, and the relatively slight human footprint with regard to communities and livestock in the surrounding area, it was highlighted as a site that deserves further consideration for wolf reintroduction.
The study won’t necessarily be taken up by state officials or government organizations considering wolf relocation on the peninsula, but it comes at a time when there is pressure from ranching and farming interests in Eastern Washington, where most of the wolves live, to relocate some to the western part of the state. In the just-ended legislative session, a bill was passed requiring the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to do an environmental analysis of potential ways to translocate wolves into Western Washington.
“When we publish this, the public, conservationists and policy makers can now look at our list (of relocation sites) and choose if they want to do additional work in individual areas,” said Ripple.
Gray wolves are not endangered globally, but they are in Washington State and the western third of the U.S. It’s estimated that there are currently at least 122 wolves in the state, according to a March 16 WDFW report.
The Oregon State report also mentions potential ecological benefits of adding wolves to the Olympics.
In a 2008 study, Ripple found that when wolves were hunted out of existence in the Olympics, it caused a cascade of effects. Because elk didn’t have as many predators, their numbers went up and caused increased stream erosion due to elk feeding more heavily on riverside plants that held soil intact.
“After wolves were killed off, the elk population, in the absence of their primary predator, were browsing on woody plants severely, to the point where young cottonwood and maple trees couldn’t grow taller,” explained Ripple.
The study also considered whether reintroducing the species would complete a predator “guild” in the Olympics. The idea is if you restore a once-intact guild of predators — such as bears, cougars and wolves in the Olympics — they will more effectively hunt and control the population of prey like elk and deer as intended, as each has a unique hunting style.
If a relocation program would some day get serious consideration, it could be expected to generate controversy — and a long process involving scrutiny by the public and government agencies.
Some locals living in the Olympics say they would object if presented with the option to add gray wolves. Tom Northup, who is a former WDFW shellfish biologist, lives on Lake Quinault.
Northup said he is opposed to reintroducing wolves to the area, and believes the environment isn’t ideal for them considering there are already a fair number of bears and cougars competing for food.
“I understand the place of wolves, but to me, it seems like introducing them into an area that small, with prey species already under a lot of stress from existing predators, that it wouldn’t be fair to the wolves,” said Northup.
He also is worried that the wolves that would be brought back could be more dangerous than the ones that historically had lived in the park.
“I’m concerned about the wolves being introduced these days, because I’ve heard they’re not the same, and tend to be larger, and potentially more dangerous,” he said.
Wolf said although there is a theory that wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone and Idaho are larger and more aggressive than the native wolves that once lived there, “this idea has not received any scientific support.”
While wolves can cause negative impacts for hunters and ranchers, Ripple and Wolf said there are potential benefits as a result of reintroducing them, like increased tourism. In Yellowstone, reintroducing wolves in the 1990s generated an additional $35 million each year for the regional economy, simply due to people who come to view wolves, a University of Montana study found.
“You can drive around Yellowstone National Park any season of the year and see many wolf watchers standing beside the road, so I believe the tourism is way up because of it,” said Ripple.
And while wolves would likely reduce the elk populations, Ripple said he could envision hunters being in favor of adding the predators.
“I’ve heard comments from hunters in the Yellowstone region appreciating having wolves on the landscape because the elk are very wary,” he said. “It’s even a better challenge for them to understand the predator and prey, before they hunt the elk, which are more alert of wolves.”
In February, state Legislature passed a bill created by Northeast Washington Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, which requires WDFW to conduct an environmental analysis of potential ways to translocate wolves into western Washington.
Donny Martorello, a wolf policy specialist at Fish and Wildlife, said they would begin working on that analysis soon.
“We got that direction in the past month,” said Martorello. “So in the next few months we’ll be initiating the process to look at that question (of translocation).”
Kretz’ intention for his bill is to speed up a section of the department’s 2011 wolf conservation and management plan, which says the department may examine possible wolf relocation strategies if population recovery isn’t going well.
Kretz, along with many in the Northeast Washington ranching community, are upset that wolves have been killing off their livestock since migrating into the state. He worries that the analysis will take a long time to get going and may not lead to action.
“I don’t have 30 years to wait, my people are going out of business here,” said Kretz. “I have a rancher that lost 72 head two years ago (due to wolves).”
Although he hopes to proceed with wolf translocation to the west to alleviate problems for northeast ranchers, Kretz said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to relocate wolves in general, and would have preferred to delist wolves as a threatened species in the state.
There is no certainty that the Oregon State report will be used by WDFW in their upcoming analysis, but the 2011 wolf management plan by the state did use Ripple’s earlier work concerning the ecological effects of killing off wolves from the peninsula.
Ripple said an actual decision to relocate wolves wouldn’t be made unless a large “coalition of people in (groups like) the ranching community, environmental groups and government agencies wished to make a consensus.”