SEATTLE (AP) — Washington's wildlife agency reported Saturday that its annual survey tallied 52 endangered gray wolves living in the state at the end of 2013, one more than in 2012. The count's results come as conservation groups urge the state to pull support from a federal effort to roll back protections for the predators.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also found five successful breeding pairs in 2013, the same number as reported in the 2012 count.
The wolf population has been a controversial topic since the predators returned to the state much faster than expected in the past several years. In 2008, there were only a handful of wolves. In March 2013, there were an estimated 50 to 100 animals in 10 confirmed packs, all in central and eastern Washington.
Farmers and hunters in the West blame the returning gray wolf population for killing livestock and reducing elk herds.
Wolves are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and as endangered in the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.
But federal wildlife officials want to remove wolves from the endangered species list across much the Lower 48 states, including the western portion of Washington.
State wildlife managers support federal delisting of the wolves, saying it would give the state more control over managing conflicts between wolves and livestock.
Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, has said federal restrictions hamper the state's ability to resolve those conflicts in the western part of the state.
On Thursday, several conservation groups sent a letter asking Anderson to rescind the agency's support for federal delisting.
"Wolves are just beginning to recover in Washington and face continued persecution. Federal protection is clearly needed to keep recovery on track," Amaroq Weiss, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said earlier this week.
Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife expressed concern for the safety of the wolf population.
"The stability of Washington's wolf population is good news, but the population is still incredibly vulnerable during these early stages of recovery in Washington and wolves have a long way still to go," she said.
Stone expressed hope that Washington wouldn't let anti-wolf sentiment come over the border from Idaho and affect wolf management practices.
"We hope Washington is observing the tragic example being set in Idaho, where wolves are treated like vermin," she said.