By Mark Davis
The harvest of wolf 926F during the Montana hunting season reignited a firestorm of calls to end hunting of the species — or at least making a wide buffer zone around Yellowstone National Park.
The killing of the female — also known as Spitfire by dedicated wolf watchers — broke the silence of an otherwise quiet wolf hunting season. A lot of those calls ended up on the desk of Ken Mills, large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Here in Wyoming, hunters are progressing toward this season’s expanded quota of 58 wolves; 36 had been harvested as of press time Monday, with a few more weeks to go.
The state is required to maintain at least 100 wolves outside Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation; Mills said the ideal population would be 160 animals.
“Our management objective is to decrease the population,” he said.
As of the end of last year, the Game and Fish estimated there were 238 wolves living outside the park and reservation, with at least another 109 living in those places.
Counting wolves is easy and accurate thanks to collared wolves, Mills said.
“There’s a lot of doubt from the public on the count, but it’s way more precise than any other species we count,” he said in a Thursday phone interview.
Wolves are social and territorial, moving in packs. Global positioning system transmitters have been deployed on at least one wolf in 30 of the estimated 34 packs in the state, Mills said. Counts are conducted by both air and by foot after the hunting seasons are over.
Population estimates for 2018 won’t be available until late March or early April, but Mills hopes to see a decline in numbers.
Populations declined 16 percent from 2016 to 2017, which is a positive trend, Mills said.
In an effort to decrease the number of wolves, the 2018 Wyoming season was extended by a month and the quota was raised by 14 wolves. Only wolves taken in the trophy zone — the northwestern corner of the state that officials consider to be suitable habitat — are counted. Those killed elsewhere in Wyoming (known as the predator zone) can be taken without regulation and don’t count against the quota.
Wolf hunting in the state resumed last year for the first time since 2014, with a quota of 44 animals.
Since hunting resumed, the number of wolves “lethally removed” by wildlife managers to resolve conflicts has been roughly halved. In 2016, 113 wolves were lethally removed; so far this year, 51 Wyoming wolves have been killed by wildlife managers.
Much of the work to remove so-called conflict wolves is done by trappers under contract with the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Area trappers have removed 21 wolves from Park County alone — 17 in the trophy zone and four in the predator zone, said Mike Foster, director of Wildlife Services in Wyoming. The salaries and expenses for the trappers in the state are mostly paid for by 19 county predator boards.
The Park County board paid $154,945.60 for trapper salaries, equipment and expenses in the past fiscal year. The board’s revenue comes from predator fees charged to sheep and cattle producers and grants from the state Animal Damage Management Board. Predator fees bring in approximately $1 million statewide and the ADMB contributes $2.5 million statewide to county boards for predator control. Ranchers in Wyoming raised about 1.3 million cattle and 350,000 sheep last year.
Despite efforts, wolves have continued to expand into new areas, including recently making it into the Bighorn Mountains, Foster said. The pack is likely to expand as long as they stay away from livestock.
“There’s a lot of people that would like us to go in there and kill ‘em,” Foster said. “We can’t because they’re not doing anything other than eating wildlife right now — at least that we know of.”
Until incidents of livestock depredation are verified, Wildlife Services is required to wait before acting to remove wolves. But the definition of an incident is loosely defined, Foster said.
“I would shy away from defining [an incident], because I’d like to keep it as broad as I can,” he said.
While protesters have been consumed by the delisting, planned hunting season and eventual relisting of grizzly bears this past year, some groups have continued to remain concerned with Wyoming’s wolf hunts. One of the most vocal opponents of sanctioned removal of predators is Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, based in Eugene, Oregon.
“The real story is how little conflict there is. Weather, birthing and disease are the primary causes of mortality [among livestock]. Predation is at the bottom,” Fahy said. “Ideally, if you’re a public lands rancher and you lose cattle or sheep to wolves, that should be the cost of doing business.”
Predator Defense is against the hunting of wolves and other predators for ecological and ethical reasons, he said.
“When you go in and indiscriminately kill wolves you’re not accomplishing anything — it’s purely political,” Fahy said. “They’re constantly screwing with highly evolved groups of animals and lethal control of wolves can exacerbate attacks on livestocks.”
Fahy said indiscriminate killing causes holes in wolf pack hierarchy.
“They’re not a whole pack anymore,” he said. “There are myriad ripple effects that happen when you go out and kill predators.”
The accessibility of wolf 926F may have helped lead to its harvest. Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist in Yellowstone National Park, is rethinking his stance on hazing wolves. Smith told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that he’s considering methods to help keep wolves in the park from becoming habituated to humans, including by using guns that shoot paintballs and beanbags.
It will mean the species will be harder to see in the park, but Smith thinks the risk may be worth the efforts. “I’m trying to preserve their opportunity as much as possible. And that means keeping wolves alive,” Smith told the News&Guide.
Keeping wolves residing at least part-time in the park safe may be desired on both sides of the debate. When popular wolves are killed, it sparks more vocal outrage. Protests over proposed grizzly hunts, expressed in part by several lawsuits, resulted in renewed federal protection of the species.
After wolf 926F was killed, “the emotional response was like a tidal wave,” said Ann Trosper, an administrative assistant on the Park County Predator Board. “It was taken legally. [The protesters] really don’t get it.”
Even if wolf hunting ends or boundaries of hunt areas are changed, managing conflicts and population size will still most certainly result in their removal by federal and state officials.