Despite controls, wolf populations remain steady

Dec 31, 2009

More than 500 gray wolves died in the Northern Rockies during 2009, the same year wolves were removed from Idaho and Montana endangered species lists. Hunting, killings in response to livestock attacks, and natural causes are attributed to the record rise.

The regional wolf count was 1,650 at the year’s start. However, since September  hunters in Idaho and Montana bagged slightly more than 200 of the carnivores. Nearly 300 more were killed by government wildlife agents, ranchers protecting their herds and poachers. The number includes wolf deaths in Wyoming, where hunting remains banned. Protections were lifted from the Idaho and Montana wolves in May.

Idaho’s total quota for its wolf hunt, which ends March 31, is 220. Montana closed its hunt in November after coming within three wolves of its total quota of 75.

Even with the hunts in Idaho and Montana, wolf populations in the region still remain about the same as a year ago, reproducing at an estimated 22 percent rate. The estimated 850 gray wolves in Idaho, 500 in Montana and 300 in Wyoming are more than five times the original recovery objective set when they were placed on an endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has approved Idaho’s wolf management plan to keep totals in the state at 520. Federal officials estimate 1,000 wolf pups were born in the region this past year with about 26 out of every 100 wolves in the region dying each year on average.

Environmentalists want to restore the wolves to protected status, but ranchers welcome hunts that diminish chances of the wolves killing their cattle and sheep. Many hunters say the hunts also protect wild game such as deer and elk that have been decimated by marauding packs.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is expected to conduct a hearing in 2010 on an environmentalist lawsuit to restore Rocky Mountain wolves to the endangered species designation. Another judge is expected to hear Wyoming’s lawsuit to take wolves off the endangered list in that state.

USFWS officials have asked U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne to uphold their federal agency’s decision to leave a wolf hunt ban intact in Wyoming while allowing hunts in Idaho and Montana. The state and Park County, however, want Johnson to turn wolf management in Wyoming over to the state.

USFWS said its decision to leave federal regulations in place in Wyoming is justified because Wyoming proposes to declare wolves predators that can be shot on sight in most of the state. Johnson is expected to hear the case’s arguments in January.

Officials estimate more than 375 domestic animals in Idaho and more than 200 in Montana have been killed by wolves through November. Wolves have been proliferating throughout the Intermountain West in recent years.

Federal wildlife agents shot seven wolves near Stanley in central Idaho in November after they were blamed for killing 36 sheep and about a dozen cattle since July 2008. In Montana, USDA Wildlife Services agents are trying to kill up to 22 wolves blamed in recent killings of cows, sheep and one guard dog.

Wyoming’s wolf numbers changed little from 2008 to 2009, averaging slightly more than 300, USFWS says. While their populations are declining in Yellowstone National Park, the wolves are thriving outside the park’s boundaries, growing from 178 animals, 30 packs and 16 breeding pairs in 2008 to about 200 in 30 packs with 19 to 21 breeding pairs in 2009—up about 12 percent.

Inside Yellowstone, their numbers declined from 171 in 2007 to 124 in 2008 to 116 in 2009, or a 32 percent decline in three years and a 6 percent decline in 2009. A USFWS official said Yellowstone’s population decline was more related to natural processes. Wolf populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are expanding, he said.

Some researchers believe a high number of Yellowstone’s wolf deaths come from wolves killing each other over prey or territory. In 2009, 30 wolves were killed in Wyoming outside Yellowstone for attacking livestock. Another five deaths were for unknown reasons. In 2008, 79 wolves were killed, 46 for attacking livestock and 11 in a hunt in Wyoming when the animals briefly lost their Endangered Species Act protection.

Sheep depredation vaulted from 26 in 2008 to 195 in 2009, but cattle depredation has dropped each year since 2006 in Wyoming, going from 123 three years ago to 20 in 2009, or an 83 percent plunge. Wolves also were blamed for killing seven dogs in 2009. Most of the three Wyoming packs blamed for sheep depredation were killed by federal officials.

In other wolf-related news, the trial of Russell Glen Frachisuer, 50, a northern Idaho man who says he shot and killed a gray wolf outside his home last June because it was a threat to his children, neighbors and dogs, is set to start on Jan. 7. He has pleaded innocent to a charge of killing big game during a closed season.

Frachisuer reported the kill to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game four months before Idaho’s first wolf hunt in decades began. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent