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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A wolf that was struck and killed by a vehicle in western Washington this week may provide the first verification that the animals have crossed the Cascade Range, an official for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said Thursday.
Experts are still working to verify that the animal was a wild wolf that had migrated into western Washington, said Dave Ware, wolf lead for the agency.
But agency officials have long suspected there were wolves in the west side, Ware said.
"There have been plenty of sightings, but we have not been able to verify them in western Washington," Ware said. "This is the first verification, if it turns out to be a (wild) wolf."
The gray wolf died Monday on Interstate 90 between North Bend and Snoqualmie Pass.
Because wolves are still under federal Endangered Species Act protections in western Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating. DNA tests will be used to confirm that the animal is a wild gray wolf and not a wolf-dog hybrid.
All of the state's known wolf packs are in eastern Washington, where the animals have sparked conflicts with ranchers in the northeastern corner of the state.
Those conflicts have prompted suggestions by some conservative eastern Washington state legislators that the animals should be trapped and exported to liberal western Washington, where support for wolf recovery is strongest.
Wolves were hunted to extinction in Washington early in the last century. But the animals began returning to the state in the early 2000s from neighboring Idaho and British Columbia. The state estimates there are fewer than 70 wolves in 16 known packs in Washington.
Ware said the death of this animal on Interstate 90 will not hurt the recovery of wolves in the state.
The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife said finding a wolf in western Washington was "an encouraging sign of progress in wolf restoration."
"There is ample suitable habitat for wolves in western Washington, including throughout the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Olympic National Park," Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement.
"I look forward to seeing other wolves travel across the Cascades, where there are vast stretches of unoccupied and excellent wolf habitat," said Shawn Cantrell, director for Northwest programs for Defenders of Wildlife.
Cantrell said it is crucial that state and federal endangered species protections remain in place for wolves in western Washington.
But those protections are under assault. Since Congress convened in January, lawmakers have proposed three different bills to remove federal protections for wolves in different states, Defenders of Wildlife said.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, introduced a bill to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protections in Washington, Oregon and Utah. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, co-sponsored the bill.
Wolves remain on the state's endangered species list.
But on the federal level, the state is split into two separate wolf populations. In the eastern third of the state, wolves are considered part of the Northern Rocky Mountain population, which was removed from the endangered list in 2011.
But in the western two-thirds of the state, wolves are considered part of the Pacific Northwest population, which is much smaller and still listed as endangered.
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