A few weeks ago, a headline caught my eye: “Wolves return to southwest Washington.” The gist of the story was that two gray wolves, one male and one female, had joined up in Klickitat County, within the Yakama Indian Reservation.
This could mean the start of the region’s first wolf pack in decades. This pair are the latest evidence of an upward trend in wolf numbers in the Northwest, as wolves from further east return to areas of their historic range — and they aren’t the only carnivorous creatures making their way back into their old homes.
In 2020, a young female wolverine was seen on the Long Beach Peninsula. No word on whether she’s the same one seen weeks ago in the Portland area, when five sightings were reported in a matter of days.
Young wolverines often travel hundreds of miles in search of suitable territory, and with a growing population returning to their old niches in the Cascade Mountains, it’s likely we’ll see more of them west of the mountains.
Increased federal and state protections for wildlife have contributed to this, including laws that prohibit the hunting and intentional killing of species at risk of going extinct. This takes the pressure off of remaining individuals and allows them space to increase their numbers.
When an ecosystem reaches a critical mass of a species, some without established territories disperse in search of new homes. Along the way, they may find themselves in places where their ancestors lived, though these locations have often changed dramatically. Many ancient conifer forests, meadows and other natural habitats in the Northwest have given way to agriculture, homes and other human development.
Some species are more adaptable than others. The peregrine falcon, which almost went extinct in the 1970s, can now be found hunting pigeons and crows in urban areas. Roosevelt elk might not wander into Portland, but they make themselves at home in towns like Warrenton and Seaside. Columbian black-tailed deer will take up residence in just about any green space west of the Cascade Mountains.
So will we be seeing wolves and wolverines along the Interstate 5 corridor? Probably not. These animals are quite shy, and need larger territories to provide them with enough food. And having large predatory animals as neighbors is a tough sell, especially for ranchers and farmers concerned about livestock.
Still, it’s important to remember that the Columbia-Pacific region was once home to not just wolves and wolverines, but brown bears as well. It’s possible that the Willapa Hills might soon find themselves occupied by a small handful of large predators, especially if populations return to the Olympic Peninsula and other adjacent wildlands. The sight of Wanda the Wolverine chowing down on marine carrion isn’t out of line with our natural history, either.
It’s a reminder to be better neighbors to local wildlife. I frequently see posts from locals online worried about sightings of coyotes and black bears, with the usual tizzy of comments advising people to watch their pets and keep their garbage locked up. That’s not terrible advice.
In the conflict between wildlife and humans, we’re generally the ones at the root of the problem. We chew up wildlife habitat with every acre we mow, log, pave or build something on, and expect the wildlife to make do with less. We love seeing the deer and elk but complain when they eat vegetables and roses.
We’ve gotten too used to living without less convenient wildlife, and yet it appears they will be gradually returning home, at least in some areas. So let’s learn to be better neighbors, to those who are here and those who might make this region their home, or home again.
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