Elk NetworkHunters and trappers rein in wolf numbers

Conservation | January 1, 2016

Hunters and trappers rein in wolf numbers

For the first time since wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockies in 1995, wolf populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all declined in 2012, according to the latest numbers released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Wolf numbers dropped by 7 percent in the three states to a minimum of 1,674 wolves. Expanded wolf hunting and trapping seasons in Idaho and Montana, and the first modern fair chase wolf hunt in Wyoming, were paramount in tempering the growth of wolf populations across the region.

“Hunters have played a key role for decades in helping to manage and sustain dozens of game populations in North America, and they can do the same for wolves,” says Mike Jimenez, FWS Recovery Coordinator for the Northern Rockies population. “Hunting remains an accepted and successful wildlife management tool that helps to reduce conflicts with humans, maintain stable populations and generate public support. We’re encouraged by the results of the trophy game hunts in each state.”

As wolves came off the endangered species list in these states, FWS anticipated state management would result in reduced populations given the management goals established in each state’s wolf plan. Despite increased mortality from hunting and trapping, Dan Ashe, FWS director, said the population continues to thrive.

“The recovery of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies continues to be one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act, and we are intensely monitoring wolf populations to ensure they remain healthy and robust under state management,” Ashe says. “We believe that professional wildlife management and the strong wildlife corridors we’ve established will ensure that the gray wolf remains a part of the landscape in the West for future generations of Americans.”

The original recovery plan approved in the mid-1990s set out to create an equitably distributed wolf population of at least 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs in three recovery areas within Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for at least three consecutive years. Wolf numbers hit that threshold in 2002 and have exceeded it every year since. The current population is at least five times larger than the minimums set, with breeding pairs filling most available niches across the core recovery zones in central Idaho, the Greater Yellowstone Area and the area spanning northwestern Montana and the Idaho Panhandle. The number of confirmed wolf packs also continued to grow in eastern Washington and Oregon.

Paradoxically, while the overall population declined, the number of packs rose by 12 percent in 2012. Confirmed packs climbed to 321, but the average pack size went down to 5.2.

“This supports the effective and appropriate management approach taken by the states, demonstrating that the implementation of their management plans continues to maintain a healthy wolf population at or above established recovery goals,” says Noreen Walsh, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

In 2013, Idaho hunters and trappers killed 329 wolves while Wildlife Services agents killed 73 in response to livestock depredation. Montana hunters and trappers killed 175 wolves, with Wildlife Services agents killing another 108. And in Wyoming, hunters killed 66 wolves, while Wildlife Services accounted for 43 more. There was no wolf hunting season in Washington or Oregon, but the state of Washington removed seven wolves implicated in livestock depredations.

Wyoming has for years come under fire for its wolf management plan that has a dual-status designation for wolves, allowing for regulated hunting seasons in parts of northwest Wyoming and unlimited wolf hunting in the rest of the state. The results of their first-ever hunt quieted many critics. Only 14 wolves were killed in the unlimited hunting zones, while hunters killed 42 wolves in the trophy management zone. Wyoming biologists have collars on 25 percent of the wolf population, and at least half of the wolf packs in the state contain at least one collared wolf.

“The year-end data suggest that Wyoming’s dual-status plan is working and we can maintain a recovered population of wolves while minimizing conflicts and providing hunting opportunity,” says Mark Bruscino, Wyoming Game and Fish’s large carnivore program supervisor. “I want to recognize wolf hunters, who were extremely cooperative throughout the season by helping us monitor hunting activity and collect important biological data.“ Hunting season regulations are still being hammered out for fall 2013. Wyoming is proposing to cut its quota from 52 to 26, while Montana is discussing an expansion: starting the state’s wolf hunting season a month earlier, allowing electronic calls and allowing hunters a total of five tags.

RMEF’S take:
The North American Model of Wildlife Management has shown time and again how powerful the blend of professional wildlife science and committed sportsmen are at bringing back thriving populations of our native wildlife. These latest numbers demonstrate that gray wolves are another great example. Despite the dire predictions of some, hunting and trapping did not decimate wolf populations. Quite the contrary. What they did do was provide millions of new dollars for wildlife management, enlist a new generation of conservationists committed to their future, and bring us closer to achieving a balance between wolves and their prey. States have proven once again that they are incredibly capable of managing sensitive species. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation applauds these efforts, and will continue to support sound wildlife management however we are able.