How to Count a Wolf

The first step in managing a rare and controversial predator—particularly in a state where it's been absent for decades—is knowing how many you have. That’s easier said than done with a species as elusive as this one.

Once common across most of Washington state, gray wolves (Canis lupus) declined rapidly between 1850 and 1900 as European-American settlers established farms and ranches throughout the region. By the 1930s, hunting, trapping, and poisoning had driven wolves to local extinction in the state. But early this century, thanks to recovering populations in Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia, wolves began making their way back into Washington. The first breeding pair was confirmed in the northern Cascades in 2008, and the population continues to grow, as recent arrivals and their offspring establish new packs and territories. According to the state’s most recent Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Annual Report, which was published in April of 2020, there are now at least 145 wolves living in 26 packs across Washington.

As has been the case wherever wolves have recently reappeared or been reintroduced across the country, their arrival and expansion in Washington state has been a highly contentious issue. While ranchers, environmentalists, and policymakers continue to debate the state’s plans for managing wolf populations, one thing that all stakeholders can agree upon is the importance of accurately counting and tracking Washington’s wolves wherever they roam. That task, which is undertaken each year by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), is a daunting effort that currently employs a variety of tools, including radio collars, helicopters, and dart guns, but might eventually move to noninvasive—and safer—approaches, such as AudioMoths, tiny recording devices that enable researchers to listen for wolf howls.

We live and work as filmmakers in the small mountain valley where the first breeding pair of gray wolves to reclaim a territory in Washington state was discovered more than a decade ago. Occasionally we’ll find the tracks of a wolf that has loped along our snowy driveway, but we had never seen one in person until we began working on this film. We had also never heard much about the dedicated team of biologists who work to ensure that this species continues on its path to recovery in our home state. But from the moment we first met the WDFW wolf team as they readied their helicopter one foggy winter morning, it was clear that there was much more to their work than just counting wolves. These biologists work tirelessly, taking on considerable personal risk, to ensure that gray wolves can once again coexist with humans in Washington. “They’re not near the big bad wolf that everyone makes them out to be,” says WDFW biologist Ben Maletzke, “but they’re not a saint either. They’re right in the middle. And I just wish folks would understand that a little bit more.”

Cascade Mountains, Washington, USA

Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele

Liz Devitt

Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele craft stories about the natural world in the human age. As a documentary team, they collaborate with nonprofits, academic institutions and others to create change through filmmaking, photography, and interactive design. They particularly love to make science personal and to build teams that amplify the impact of their work. Their films have been featured at Telluride Mountainfilm, Wild & Scenic Film Festival, EarthxFilm, International Wildlife Film Festival, DCEFF, and others.

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