three deer, including one fawn, in a field
Taylor Ganz
Two female adult white-tailed deer and one fawn.

Humans drove wolves to extinction in Washington state around the 1930s. Thanks to conservation efforts, by about 80 years later, wolves had returned — crossing first from the Canadian border into Washington around 2008 and later entering the state from Idaho. Since then, wolf numbers in Washington have been steadily growing, raising questions about what the return of this large predator species means for ecosystems and people alike.

In northeast Washington, where wolves have recovered most successfully, researchers from the University of Washington and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife tracked one of their primary prey — white-tailed deer — in part to see what impact wolf packs are having on deer populations. The answer? So far, wolves aren’t having as much of an impact on deer as other factors.

In a paper published June 18 in Ecological Applications, the team reports that the biggest factors shaping white-tailed deer populations in northeast Washington are the quality of habitat available and a different, long-established large predator in the state: the cougar, also known as the mountain lion or puma. Wolves were a distant third in their impact.

“A big take-away from this study is that wolves are not returning to empty landscapes. These are places with humans and other carnivore species, like cougars, which will affect the impact that wolves can have,” said lead author Taylor Ganz, who conducted this research for her UW doctoral degree as part of the Washington Predator-Prey Project. “This area has a relatively high human footprint compared to other areas where wolves have been studied. These are not national parks or dense, old-growth forests. They are areas with active logging, farming, ranching and towns. Our findings show that these factors are likely limiting the impact of wolves on one of their primary food sources.”

Other UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences co-authors are professors Laura Prugh, Beth Gardner and Aaron Wirsing; PhD alum Sarah Bassing, and current PhD student Lauren Satterfield.

Read more at UW News »