After investigators in Washington state discovered four dead gray wolves in February, they started to dig deeper. Within a month, they’d identified two more wolves that were dead in the area. State officials announced last week that all six wolves had been poisoned.
“This incident is quite large in scale compared to prior poaching, with six wolves killed in a relatively short time frame,” Becky Elder, a spokesperson for the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Service, said Tuesday, as reported by the New York Times’ Derrick Bryson Taylor. Elder chose not to give specifics on the type of poison or how it was administered, per the Times.
Under Washington state law, gray wolves are an endangered species. The state considers the illegal killing of an endangered animal to be a gross misdemeanor, for which punishments can be as severe as one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, the Spokesman-Review’s Eli Francovich reports. The wolves also are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state.
Several conservation groups criticized the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for not publicizing the case earlier this year, per the Spokesman-Review. Now, eight wildlife and conservation organizations are offering rewards totaling $51,400 for information leading to a conviction for killing the wolves.
“The state needs to pull out the stops to find these poachers and make sure they can’t kill again,” Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is offering a reward, tells the Wall Street Journal’s Alyssa Lukpat.
Gray wolves are social animals that live in packs. Before European settlers arrived in North America, their range stretched across the continent. As wolves were killed over the next couple of centuries, the animals’ population plummeted to below 1,000 in the lower 48 states by the mid-1900s, per the Times.
Federal law first protected the wolves as an endangered species in 1973, and since then, the number of gray wolves in the lower 48 states rebounded, reaching about 7,500 as of 2020. That same year, a Trump administration decision removed gray wolves from the endangered species list, according to the Wall Street Journal. Wolf hunting increased in some states after they were delisted, per the Times. In February, a federal judge ordered that the gray wolves’ protections under the Endangered Species Act be reinstated.
The six wolves poached this year were members of the Wedge Pack in Stevens County. WDFW officials have previously been authorized to kill wolves due to attacks on livestock. In 2012 and 2020, WDFW killed all the Wedge Pack wolves for that reason, according to the Spokesman-Review. Wolves later repopulated the area each time.
At the end of 2021, WDFW estimated there were nine wolves in the Wedge Pack, per the Spokesman-Review, and at least 206 gray wolves in Washington across all 33 packs.
Last year, eight wolves in eastern Oregon were poisoned. It’s possible the Washington poisonings are connected, but investigators don’t know for sure, as Ressler tells Courtney Flatt of the Northwest News Network. The investigation into the Oregon poisonings stalled in December.
“These communities where this happens tend to be quite small, tight-knit communities, so there’s a likelihood that somebody who was not involved might know who did this,” she tells the publication.