Still listed for protection west of Highway 97, wolves are gaining ground. But people remain their biggest problem.

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Washington’s newest wolf pack, the Loup Loup, has taken up residence near the towns of Twisp and Omak in Okanogan County.

The Methow pack was confirmed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday, following a cluster of public wolf sightings. The wolves, previously undocumented in the area, moved in on their own, continuing a westward expansion from Idaho and Montana.

The confirmation of the newest pack brings Washington’s total minimum number of packs to 17, nearly all of them east of the Cascades. Wolves have also been spotted in the North Cascades near Hozomeen, Whatcom County, where they have been moving back and forth across the border with Canada. Federal and state wildlife agents intend to monitor the newest pack over the winter, and get a radio collar on one of the wolves in the summer of 2016 to follow the pack’s travels.

Ann Froschauer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the precise number of animals in the Loup Loup Pack is not yet known, but biologists tracked up to six animals traveling together in recent snows.

The state most recently counted the number of wolves at a minimum of 68 in Washington in 2014, up from 27 just four years earlier. There will be a new count in the spring.

“Obviously a new pack shows the population is recovering; a new pack is a good signal that wolves are naturally re-establishing themselves in Washington,” Froschauer said.

Shot, poisoned and trapped nearly to extinction in Washington and elsewhere by the 1920s and 1930s, wolves began their return to Washington in earnest about 15 years ago, with increased sightings leading to the first confirmed pack in 2008 north of Cle Elum.

It’s been a rocky road to recovery. People so far have proved the biggest block to the recovery and survival of a species that can travel 70 miles a day crossing major rivers, mountain ranges and lakes, and endure days without food and freezing temperatures.

The gray wolf is federally listed as an endangered species within the western two-thirds of Washington. East of Highway 97, the wolves are not federally protected, but are listed for protection by the state of Washington.

Nonetheless at least half a dozen wolves have been killed by poachers since 2012, including a Whitman County man fined $100 last September. Another wolf was struck and killed on Interstate 90 between North Bend and Snoqualmie Pass last April. State sharpshooters in helicopters shot and killed seven wolves in one pack north of Kettle Falls, Stevens County, in 2012 for preying on livestock.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat in the packs’ home ranges in Eastern Washington burned in wildfires during the past two summers.

Yet wolves are still gaining ground in Washington.

“This animal is doing very well,” said Mike Jimenez, Northern Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is a very tenacious, robust, strong, highly mobile animal, widely distributed across the globe. The trouble is people are like that as well. The problem is, how do you fit this animal back on the landscape?”

As the number of wolves has grown in Washington, so have conflicts with people, resulting in more wolves shot or poached. That can make conflict worse.

“You create problem packs when you take out leaders,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the nonprofit Conservation Northwest. Advocates of wolf recovery, the group has been working to help manage conflict between people and wolves with nonlethal methods, including deploying range riders on horseback to help guard their stock.

“Wolves are incredibly resilient, no one should worry about the population ever going away at this point,” Friedman said. “ What we should worry about is effects on their behavior because of human-caused dynamics.”

Donny Martorello, wolf policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said at this point the department’s recovery plan is on track for canis lupis but when it comes to homo sapiens, it’s a struggle. “In terms of the numerical side of the recovery, wolves are doing what they need to do with very little effort by the state,” Martorello said. “It’s the people that seem to be the biggest challenge.

“One of our goals is also to promote an understanding for wolves and coexistence. That is the one we are looking at and struggling with the most, we have seen the least amount of progress there. It’s really a people issue, a social carrying capacity, if you will.”

The state has hired an outside conflict resolution expert, and expanded its citizen advisory panel to include more points of view, including hunters. “We are hoping to break the pattern as wolf recovery goes on, we want to see the public understanding grow toward coexistence.”

The wolves colonizing Washington now are mostly radiating from the original population from Canada moved by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1994 to jump start recovery, with a reintroduction of 31 wolves in Yellowstone National Park and 35 in Central Idaho. Those animals have been multiplying and dispersing ever since.

There were at least 1,657 wolves counted in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming last year in 282 packs, including 85 breeding pairs.

Oregon last year had at least 77 wolves in 15 packs and eight breeding pairs. Washington now has 17 packs. Last year it had five breeding pairs and at least 68 wolves.

Jimenez is not surprised wolves have made it as far west as they have; it seems only a matter of time before they make it south of I-90, and then move on to the Olympics, packed with deer, elk and other prey. Wolves are hard-wired to disperse, with young on their own and on the move by the time they are 3, in search of mates and territory of their own.

Wolves are also legendary travelers. A collared wolf was tracked from Cody, Wyoming to the north rim of the Grand Canyon last winter, Jimenez said. Another roamed from Bozeman to Vail, some 400 miles in a straight line. A year-and-a-half-old female traveled more than 3,000 miles in just six months.

Wolves have swam the Snake River to recolonize Oregon and Washington, and a wolf crossed the Cascades last April — only to get killed on I-90. At least one wolf has made it as far as California.

“There isn’t much that stops them,” Jimenez said. “If you give them a little bit of protection from human persecution and they have an adequate prey base they respond very quickly, and come back.”

For more information, visit the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s website.