Western Washington has its first wolf pack in decades, an indication that wolf recovery is on track and a sign that the canines are expanding their range in a healthier ecosystem, wildlife officials say.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced Thursday that biologists had documented a pack of the animals living in Skagit County, west of the Cascade crest.

A male wolf, which had been captured in the county and given a radio collar in 2017, was joined this winter by a female wolf, according to according to wildlife officials.

Biologists named the pair the Diobsud Creek Pack. The two have been spending their time near Diobsud Creek, in an area south of Baker Lake and north of Highway 20 near the town of Marblemount.

“It’s great we have another year of upward numbers,” said Ben Maletzke, a statewide wolf specialist for WDFW. “Wolves are definitely a keystone species out there, and they are recovering and expanding in Washington. They need a healthy prey population to expand.”

That the animals are settling west of the Cascades could also mean that wolves are filling their territory in Eastern Washington.

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“The eastern part of the state is definitely getting to the point of saturation for the number of packs we expect to see,” Maletzke said.

WDFW each year completes a wolf survey, seeking radio-collared animals with planes and helicopters to count pack members, using human trackers to find paw prints in mud or snow, and taking photos of packs with remote-game cameras.

Wolves were trapped, poisoned and hunted to local extinction in Washington in the early 1900s. The canines began a rapid return to the state in 2008. Their numbers have grown from a handful to at least 126 individuals and 27 packs, according to WDFW’s latest count. Most live in rural, rugged areas of Northeast Washington.

In Eastern Washington, the wolves’ re-entry has shifted the region’s ecology. For instance, mule deer have begun to change their home ranges to avoid wolves, according to a University of Washington-led study. Mule deer in wolf territory favor higher-elevation terrain that’s brushier, steeper and rockier, according to the study, which was published last month in the academic journal Oecologia.

Maletzke said he did not have information on how the west-side wolves were behaving or if their behavior differed from those on the east side.

“They’re opportunistic,” Maletzke said of the species. For the Skagit County wolves, “We know there’s deer and elk in that valley. We know there’s beavers and salmon in the streams. There’s a number of species they could be feeding on.”

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Wolves’ return to the state has stirred controversy in many Eastern Washington communities, spurring hard feelings and death threats as ranchers, conservationists, scientists and politicians battle over how to handle conflicts with livestock. WDFW has approved the killing of members of several wolf packs in recent years.

Last year, the agency killed two members of the Old Profanity Territory pack, one member of the Togo pack and one of the Smackout pack, after those packs repeatedly attempted to prey on livestock. Six wolves were legally killed by tribal hunters and two were killed by others in cases under investigation by WDFW.

WDFW’s lethal orders have been the subject of legal scrutiny. Last summer, the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands challenged several kill orders in court. Litigation is ongoing.

Collette Adkins, the center’s carnivore conservation director, said she was glad to see a modest increase in this year’s survey of wolves, but remained critical of WDFW.

“There’s so much more work to do to achieve full recovery and if the state would stop killing so many wolves, we’d have a lot more,” Adkins said. “We’re frustrated. Too often, they turn to lethal methods when there’s conflicts.” 

Most of the conflicts have been in Ferry and Stevens counties.

For wolves, “It’s our highest-density area. We have dense grazing over there” by cattle, said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director. 

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Susewind said the agency plans to add at least one staffer to help manage wolf recovery in those areas “so we can have conflict staff available in a larger part of the day.”

The department will increase emphasis on promoting with ranchers “proactive,” preventive measures to keep wolves away from cattle, including range riders, guard dogs and fladry, ropes strung with flags that flap in the wind and deter wolves.

Chase Gunnell, a spokesperson for Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit with a representative on the state’s advisory group on wolf issues, said the state’s investment in nonlethal measures is paying off. As wolves spread in other Western states, like Montana, a higher percentage were killed after livestock conflicts, he said.

“Twelve years into their wolf reintroduction, they were looking at a much higher rate of mortality,” Gunnell said. In Washington, “we are finding ways to keep it at a minimum.”

The debate over wolf management has often boiled over in the Legislature.

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Rep. Joel Kretz, a Republican from Wauconda, in the state’s northeast corner, has sponsored legislation to relocate wolves to Western Washington, where they’re more popular.

Recently, he sponsored a tongue-in-cheek bill to send the creatures to Bainbridge Island.

Kretz might get his wish for wolves to populate the west side — without human help.