SPOKANE, Wash. — While they view predators from widely different viewpoints, Steve Gilbertson, a hiker, Ross Hurd, a rancher, and Bob Jensen, a hunter, are among Washington’s most distinguished wolf watchers.
Each had a role in documenting new wolf packs, earning the honor to dub the packs with their official names.
Outdoor lifestyles put the men in touch with the elusive wild canines. Sharing the information with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is helping biologists manage a controversial critter protected by state endangered species laws.
“Washington is a big state and we can’t be everywhere,” said Scott Becker, the agency’s coordinator for wolf research capture and radio-collaring efforts. “The information we get from the public is invaluable.”
State officials define a wolf pack as two wolves of either sex traveling together. Most wolf packs have 5-10 wolves. The Smackout Pack once had 12.
The state wolf management plan looks more specifically to “successful breeding pairs,” which must include a male and female with at least two pups that survive until the end of December. At least 15 breeding pairs must be scattered over three regions of the state before state endangered species protections can be eased.
Washington currently has 14 confirmed wolf packs with at least three more suspected packs.
Five breeding packs had been identified at the end of 2013 and at least two more pairs were known to have had pups this year.
A pair of wolves has been tracked by department biologists in Whitman County near Ewan, but documenting a pack needs more evidence, such as a photo from a motion-activated trail camera showing two wolves in one frame.
Gilbertson is the most unlikely of the wolf-pack finders.
“I’m just a hiker and mountain biker,” the Spokane pharmacist said. “I don’t hunt with a gun, but I love to hunt wildlife with cameras.”
He began adding a purpose to those passions a few years ago by putting up trail cams in remote locations about an hour’s drive north of Spokane. “I like to put them out at least 3 miles from a trailhead or gate to make a good hike out of checking on them,” he said during a camera-checking hike with pal Scott Stevens.
His trail cam photo album features a wildlife smorgasbord, including squirrels, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, deer, wild turkeys and other birds, elk and elk hunters who occasionally mugged for the camera, moose – lots of moose. On June 22, 2013, a wolf appeared in a frame.
“I was on fire I was so excited,” he said. “I’d seen tracks before. Finally, a photo.”
He put out more cameras. In mid-October, he had a prize of statewide significance. One of his cameras scored several frames showing two wolves.
He and Stevens put out more cameras and documented pairs several more times through fall and winter. They delivered the evidence to WDFW biologists, who went into the field and verified a new pack. Gilbertson got the privilege of naming it.
Carpenter Ridge Pack is named for a friend, not a geographic title found on a map of Pend Oreille County.
“Mike Carpenter introduced me to that area when he learned I liked to hike, bike and watch for animals,” Gilbertson said. “He got sick and died young in 2011. Showing me that area near Boyer Mountain, where his family hunts, was one of the most significant things anyone has ever shared with me.”
Most of Washington’s wolf packs were named for nearby geographic features by the wolf researchers who documented them, but three other pack names have a more personal touch.
Nc’icn Pack, pronounced n-TSEE-tsn, was confirmed in the Sanpoil River Valley by the Colville Tribe.
“We wanted to come up with a name from one of our reservation’s language groups,” said Randall Friedlander, tribal fish and wildlife director.
“Nc’icn means wolf in the Okanogan language. It’s a way for people to become familiar with our language. It’s a word everybody can pronounce.
“My grandparents told me that when they went to boarding schools they were beaten for speaking their native language. It’s neat to have a chance to highlight our words with one every state biologist will say.”
Wenatchee Pack was confirmed after considerable effort by a family that discovered the wolves on their Chelan County ranch.
Firefighters working on the Wenatchee complex fires in November 2012 alerted the Hurd family to wolves near their property. Soon they found out firsthand.
In January 2013, they found remains of six dead deer. They put out trail cams and got photos of six different wolves, but no photos of two wolves at a time.
“The state was reluctant to confirm the pack,” Hurd said, noting that one wolf photographed was a female ear-tagged in 2011 as a member of the Teanaway Pack.
In March, they became even more concerned.
“We had dead elk, a dead cow on the ranch, wolf tracks all around and they still wouldn’t confirm the pack,” Hurd said. His son, Stuart, a hunting and fishing guide who already had trail cam photos of wolves, was determined to verify a pack.
“It took him 18 hours when he put his mind to it,” Ross said. “Stuart went out and found congregations of crows. That led him to an elk carcass. He went out again and found another partially eaten bull elk and put up the camera. The next morning he had photos of two wolves at the site at one time.”
The proximity of the wolves to the Wenatchee complex fires and the city of Wenatchee prompted the Hurds in naming the pack. “I was on the outskirts of town with the Wildlife Department field trip when a newspaper reporter said ‘What’s that?’ They turned around and there was a wolf.
“We’re hoping the wolves take up residences a few drainages away where there are more elk and deer,” he said recently. “The elk have moved off our place.”
Goodman Meadows pack was confirmed from a tip from Jensen, a Port Angeles sportsman who hunts each fall in Pend Oreille County.
Jensen reported the pack in September 2013 after a moose hunting trip on which he, his brother and Craig Goodwin of Spokane spotted eight wolves moving across a meadow where they began feeding on a moose carcass near Bunchgrass Meadows. “We watched them at 100-200 yards for a half an hour,” he said. “It was incredible.”
WDFW research trapper Trent Roussin followed the wolves through the winter and trapped and collared an adult male this summer.
By monitoring the GPS information and using trail cams, he was able to document the pack had at least four adults and four pups.
“I named the pack in honor of Craig Goodman, who introduced us to the hunting opportunities in Unit 113,” said Jensen, who served in the Marines with Goodman’s brother-in-law. “My brother and I have put roots there since Craig welcomed us into his hunting family. Naming the pack after him is in honor of a friend and our bond through wildlife.”
Gilbertson, who relocated to Virginia this year, was back in the Boyer Mountain area in June to check trail cams he continues monitor hoping to further document the Carpenter Ridge Pack.
In a day of trekking, he checked five camera sites, but they produced no wolf photos. Worse, two out of five cameras had been stolen.
Disappointed but undeterred, he installed fresh batteries in the remaining cameras. He plans to fly cross-country to check them this fall.
“One of the things I’ve always said to my relatives in Montana and people who have problems with wolves is that I would rather live in a world where wolves can run free than one devoid of them, even if they get shot,” he said.
“Wolves are vermin to some people, but they don’t steal trail cams.”