Historically, Roosevelt elk and blacktail deer in the Olympics were preyed upon by a remarkable predator, the wolf. Before settlement, gray wolves coexisted with elk herds in most valleys of the Olympics. In 1861 ethnologist James Swan found “innumerable quantities of wolves” on Sequim Prairie. Wolves remained common in the Olympics as late as 1894. But by the time the park was established in 1938, government-sponsored trapping and poisoning had extirpated wolves from the peninsula.
The gray wolf was listed as “Threatened” in Western Washington under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Federal agencies are required to ensure the preservation and recovery of federally listed species where feasible. In 1981 a National Park Service advisory board nominated Olympic as one of the two best sites for wolf reintroduction in the national park system. The other site, Yellowstone National Park, conducted a successful wolf reintroduction in 1996. The return of this keystone species has sent waves of renewal rippling throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
In 1999, in the wake of the success at Yellowstone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a feasibility study for returning wolves to Olympic National Park. The study found that it was biologically feasible to restore wolves to the Olympics. It concluded that the park and surrounding Forest Service wilderness areas could support a healthy population of six to seven packs in river valleys. The primary habitat wolves would use is 98 percent in public ownership, and the likelihood of wolves coming into contact with humans, pets and livestock would be insignificant. Wolf predation on elk and deer would reduce populations, at most, about 17 percent, well within population viability.
A 1998 public opinion poll showed that more than six out of ten Puget Sound area residents favored introduction. On the Olympic Peninsula a majority supported the idea. Olympic Park’s 2008 general management plan lists a wolf recovery plan as a priority for future management, but there is no current planning schedule or funding for such, and little wolf education or outreach being conducted by the park.
In 2011 the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for Washington confirmed that ONP offers the best habitat, largest unmanaged elk population, and lowest chances for wolf–human conflicts in the state. Unfortunately, it stopped short of recommending reintroduction. OPA considers translocation from other areas, where state recovery goals have been met, to be a sound and practical approach that state and federal wildlife managers should embrace.
Wolves remain the only wildlife species now missing from Olympic National Park. How wonderful it would be for visitors to have the haunting music of wolves returned to these forest valleys, and what a major step toward restoring this remarkable and dynamic ecosystem to wholeness.
To read OPA’s comment letter on the Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for Washington, click here. To read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department’s Olympic wolf feasibility executive summary, click here. To read Tim McNulty’s article “Olympic Park’s Missing Predator” in Defenders Magazine, click here.