For the first time since gray wolves were reintroduced into the Rocky Mountain areas of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in 1995, population numbers for the wide-ranging predator appear to have leveled off or even begun to decline.
Mid-year estimates from the states' wildlife agencies suggest the wolf population is about where it was last year, said Ed Bangs, three-state wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last year at this time, Fish and Wildlife Service officials estimated that there were 1,545 wolves in the tri-state region. But based on the new mid-year estimates released this week, that number appears to have dropped to 1,455 wolves.
However, the estimates do suggest the number of wolf packs in the region may have climbed somewhat from last year. In all, there were thought to be 179 wolf packs in the northern Rocky Mountains last year, compared to an estimate of 197 packs now.
In Idaho, the mid-year estimate of wolf numbers stands at 771 animals, down from 788 last September and more than 1,000 after pups were born last spring. As in the rest of the northern Rockies, Idaho's estimated number of wolf packs has climbed, increasing from 75 last September to 89 now.
According to the mid-year population estimate from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming remain the only states in the northern Rocky Mountains wolf recovery zone—which also covers the eastern thirds of Washington and Oregon and northern Utah—known to have wolf packs at this time.
Reports of wolf activity in northeast Oregon have filtered in this summer, but have not been verified by wolf biologists. Biologists have long expected gray wolves to reoccupy northeast Oregon since the region is next to wolf-occupied areas in Idaho and since lone wolves have been seen in the area sporadically for nearly a decade.
The mid-year report notes that a new wolf pack containing a breeding pair and six pups was discovered in north-central Washington near the rural community of Twisp. Genetic samples taken from the newly arrived Washington wolves indicate they did not originate from nearby populations in the northern Rocky Mountains, but likely came from west-central British Columbia.
Bangs noted that about 30 percent of wolves in the northern Rockies sport radio collars. He said the "enormously intensive effort" needed to keep that many wolves collared is necessary to keep tabs on the region's shifting wolf populations.
Bangs said the changing wolf numbers is a significant turn of events. He said that while one or two states may have seen a temporary leveling off of wolf numbers in previous years, never has it happened in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at the same time.
"It looks like all three states have stabilized," he said.
The news that regional gray wolf populations may be leveling off or declining is just the latest surprising revelation this week related to the wolf saga. Earlier this week, news broke indicating the Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of withdrawing the federal delisting rule released in March that removed federal Endangered Species Act protection for wolves in the northern Rockies.
Newspapers throughout the region have reported on the thus-far-unsubstantiated news that federal officials have told the states and sportsmen's groups that they plan to withdraw the delisting rule and go back to the drawing boards to come up with a new delisting rule. That follows a July 18 ruling in Missoula by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granting a preliminary injunction that immediately restored ESA protections for wolves.
In particular, Molloy said the Fish and Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily in delisting the wolf despite a lack of evidence of genetic exchange between sub-populations in the three states.
The decision meant that hunters in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will not be heading to the hills this fall in pursuit of the wily predators. That includes Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who has said he would like to bid on the chance to be the first to shoot a wolf when the state opens its first wolf-hunting season.
In Idaho alone, as many as 428 wolves would have been allowed to die this fall as part of a hunt approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in May and scheduled to begin Sept. 15.
In the aftermath of the Molloy decision, Otter spokesman Mark Warbis said the state would be carefully considering its options in light of the ruling.
"The governor disagrees with the decision and is disappointed," Warbis said. "The wolf population in Idaho is strong. Idaho has developed a sound and responsible plan for managing wolves to maintain a sustainable population."
Beyond statements like that, Idaho officials have mostly been silent on the state's opinion of the ruling and how they will proceed. Idaho Department of Fish and Game Large Carnivore Manager Steve Nadeau said mid-year estimates are historically poor assessments compared to year-end estimates. Those figures—which are the figures used by the Fish and Wildlife Service to track populations from year to year—are computed with the help of more accurate aerial counts when wolves are on snow. The tracking is made even more easy because about two-thirds of Idaho's wolf packs have members sporting radio collars.
"It's based on the best data we can get," Nadeau said.
Nadeau and Bangs both declined to comment on reports stating the Fish and Wildlife Service is moving on its own to withdraw the wolf delisting rule. They directed questions of that nature to Andrew Ames, spokesman for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department in Washington, who also declined to comment on the matter.
However, conservationists have not been as taciturn.
"We're extremely pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally bowed to reality by recognizing that there are serious scientific and legal problems underlying their delisting rule," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of 12 litigants in the wolf lawsuit.
The mid-year report from the Fish and Wildlife Service also details the number of livestock deaths attributed to wolves, as well as "control" actions taken against wolves in response. The deaths of 411 cattle and sheep have been tied to wolves this year, compared with 296 in 2007.
Under authorization by wildlife officials, 172 wolves have been killed in the northern Rockies tri-state region so far this year, compared to 134 last year. In Idaho, 81 have been killed this year, compared to 40 in 2007.
By federal law, state wildlife managers can still authorize wolves to be killed even when the predators retain ESA protections. The rule allows wolves to be killed for depredations on livestock, stock animals and dogs and to achieve wildlife-management objectives.
This story first appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express on September 19, 2008.