A pair of wolves in Skagit County were deemed the first pack of the recovering species west of the Cascade Mountains a year ago, but without enough information to verify more than one wolf remains in the area, the state has scratched the Diobsud Creek Pack off of its annual list.

In the Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2019 Annual Report released Monday, the name for the short-lived Diobsud Pack was typed in strike-through text.

"Surveys indicated a single wolf maintained the Diobsud Creek territory this winter, which had been considered the only Western Washington pack, but no longer meets the definition of a pack for 2019," a news release states.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife defines a pack as two or more animals sharing a territory. In order to maintain pack status, there must be continued evidence of more than one wolf in a given area.

In the Marblemount area in east Skagit County, that evidence was not obtained this year, using state and private wildlife cameras and track surveys conducted in the snow.

Statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke said photos were obtained in February and March from wildlife cameras, but they were dark, grainy, showing just one wolf at a time.

"There's at least still one black wolf utilizing that territory. We just don't know ... what's actually happening," he said.

The state agency is unable to see any identifying marks, so it's unclear whether the photos show the same wolf, or whether they are either of the wolves documented previously.

"It's just a black wolf at night that we got on camera in multiple images," Maletzke said.

The first wolf was confirmed in Skagit County in June 2017, when a male was captured, tagged and collared, and released by wildlife biologists.

In early 2019, that wolf was seen with a mate, and the Diobsud Creek Pack name was given.

"We called it a pack and we had the evidence to say so, and then that collar died in April of 2019," Maletzke said. "We were hoping they would den up (and have pups), but then unfortunately the collar died ... and we weren't able to catch any information."

While that lack of evidence meant one fewer wolf and one fewer pack counted in the state's annual report, the Washington wolf population as a whole saw growth for the 11th year in a row, according to a news release.

Fish & Wildlife and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation together counted 145 wolves in 26 packs. That's an 11% increase over 2019.

Since 1980, gray wolves have been listed under state law as endangered throughout Washington. In the western two-thirds of the state, they are classified as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The nonprofit Conservation Northwest received the new tally with mixed reactions.

“While we’re glad to see another year of wolf population growth and we remain optimistic overall, it’s concerning that progress towards recovery continues to be slow in the Cascades and Western Washington,” Conservation Northwest Policy Director Paula Swedeen said in a news release from the organization.

Other conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, contend that statewide population growth is not happening quickly enough. They blame conflicts with cattle owners, which accounted for 11 wolf kills last year, according to Fish & Wildlife.

"The population continuing to recover is good news for wolf conservation, but it can also bring additional challenges. Last year was particularly tough for wolf-livestock conflict management," Fish & Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in acknowledgement of the issue in an agency news release. "We are working with citizens and communities to strike a balance so both livestock producers and wolves can share the landscape and thrive in Washington."

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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