Wyoming’s wolf population declined nearly 19 percent in 2008, partly because of natural deaths in Yellowstone National Park, management killings outside the park, and a brief hunting season in part of the state.
The population declined from 359 animals in 2007 to 302 animals last year. There were more than 42 packs, with 178 wolves outside Yellowstone National Park and 124 animals inside Yellowstone.
Yellowstone’s wolf population declined by 27 percent last year, likely the result of wolf-on-wolf conflicts, mange and distemper, park officials said. The park’s wolf population declined from 171 animals in 2007 to 124 animals last year. The park also observed a 40 percent drop in breeding pairs – from 10 to six.
The numbers were released Tuesday in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual wolf report.
Population numbers are likely to be scrutinized since Interior Secretary Ken Salazar earlier this month announced that the Obama administration will press forward with ending endangered species protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming.
In the northern Rockies as a whole, the wolf population increased from 1,513 animals to 1,645 animals, an increase of 8.7 percent. The gain represents the smallest increase in recent years. Over the past five years, the population increase has ranged from 11 percent to nearly 29 percent.
“The gray wolf population in the northern Rockies continues to thrive,” unnamed Fish and Wildlife officials said in a statement. “The [northern Rocky Mountain] wolf population has exceeded its minimum recovery targets every year since 2002. Resident wolf packs currently occupy most of the suitable habitat within 110,000 square miles of Montana, central and northern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming, so there appears to be little unoccupied suitable habitat left for many additional wolf packs.”
Officials said additional evidence of this saturated population is the record number of wolf conflicts in the northern Rocky Mountains. In all, wolves killed 214 cattle, 355 sheep, 28 goats, 21 llamas, 10 horses and 14 dogs. State and federal agencies paid roughly $1.5 million to ranchers to compensate them for their livestock losses. Wildlife managers killed 264 wolves because of livestock depredations.
In Wyoming, wolves killed roughly 67 livestock and control efforts removed 46 depredating wolves. Fish and Wildlife biologists estimate that for every wolf depredation that is verified, wolves make eight more undocumented livestock kills.
Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said the decline in northern Rockies population growth isn’t surprising.
“We’re slowly reaching the carrying capacity defined by the environment, but largely defined by the social carrying capacity,” he said. “That’s a question that will come into play when we look at the requirements for genetic exchange for a minimum genetic viability.”
Camenzind said the most recent research shows that at least 2,000 to 3,000 wolves are needed to ensure that the northern Rockies population will remain genetically healthy enough to sustain itself.
“We have a gap, and that is where the discussion is going to be,” he said.
In Wyoming, in addition to the 11 wolves killed during the brief period they were hunted in the area of the state where they were classified as predator’s, Camenzind pointed to the relatively high number of management kills per wolf when compared with Idaho and Montana. While the northern Rockies average is 2.2 livestock loses per wolf killed, Wyoming’s average is 1.5 livestock losses per wolf killed.
“Wyoming has a very aggressive predator control program,” he said.
While federal managers have approved Idaho and Montana’s plans to manage wolves, Camenzind points out that the three states would manage for a minimum of 1,200 wolves, meaning more than 400 wolves could be killed under state management.
“Our concern is not just Wyoming’s plan, but how it and the plans for the other two states could impact future wolf numbers,” he said. “We see how vulnerable these populations are and recognize that we have to do as much protection as possible, knowing full well that there will always be control actions.”
The Wyoming plan would have created a zone in 80 percent of the state where wolves are considered predators and can be killed any time without a license. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy granted an injunction against a delisting proposal last summer in part because of Wyoming’s predator area.
Salazar’s announcement that he will go forward with delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming, has agencies and groups on both sides of the controversy gearing up for lawsuits.
The decision will likely go into effect in mid-April to late April after a 30-day waiting period.
This story first appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide on March 18, 2009