A female wolf that had pups earlier this year was illegally killed in northeast Washington in May.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists responded to a report of a dead wolf on May 26 in the Sheep Creek area of Stevens County. The female died of a gunshot wound, according to a WDFW necropsy. The wolf is believed to be the breeding female from the Wedge Pack, according to WDFW biologists.
Staci Lehman, state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said the agency is investigating.
Conservation Northwest is offering a $7,500 reward for information leading to a poaching conviction.
"It's unfortunate," said Jay Shepherd, a co-founder of the Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative and the wolf program lead for Conservation Northwest.
In particular, the death of a breeding female may have a big impact on the pack's cohesion, said David Ausband, a wolf researcher at the University of Idaho.
"There is a chance that if she was shot in May those pups are kind of barely out of the den," he said. "They are still not weaned. They are probably still relying on her for milk. They (will) probably die."
The death of those pups can fracture a pack, he said.
"Pups seem to be what hold a pack together," he said. "If they don't have pups for a year or two that's when we start seeing packs disband."
However, when exactly the female died could make all the difference, Ausband said. It's possible the pups are just old enough to survive even without the female wolf.
"The most important (variable) is the time of year," Ausband said.
Lehman, the state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said she didn't know exactly when the female was killed.
Shepherd points to Washington's Huckleberry Pack as an example of when legal lethal removal of a breeding female disrupted pack cohesion. In 2014, WDFW killed the breeding female after members of the pack killed numerous sheep. Following the legal killing, Shepherd said, the pack moved their territory.
"Regardless of how people feel about wolves, illegally killing them is never acceptable," said Chase Gunnell, a spokesman for Conservation Northwest. "Poaching can also undermine progress towards state wolf recovery goals, goals that many folks in northeast Washington are eager to meet."
Since 2010, 12 wolves have been poached in Washington, Lehman said. Despite offering rewards and investigating, WDFW has only convicted one person.
The last confirmed wolf poaching was on May 27, 2019 near the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge, also in Stevens County. There has been no conviction in that case despite reward money totaling $10,000.
In 2015, one suspect was prosecuted but the case was dismissed. In 2016, a Palouse farmer was prosecuted, found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine.
"It's an incredibly low chance of finding people, which is why it's really important to attempt to prevent people from wanting to do it in the first place," said Paula Sweeden, Conservation Northwest's policy director.
There are a minimum of 178 wolves in 29 packs and 16 successful breeding pairs in Washington, according to WDFW's annual survey released in April.
Wolves naturally returned to Washington in 2008 after reintroductions in Idaho and Montana. Wolves were exterminated from most of the United States by the 1930s, but they have made a comeback in the West following reintroductions in 1995. In January, wolves were delisted by the federal government. Now, Fish and Wildlife manages wolves throughout the state.