BY: Andrew Setterholm
After signing Wyoming’s wolf management bill into law two weeks ago, the state has again moved one step closer to managing its most publicized predator.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (G&F) posted its draft regulations on wolf management and hunting and will seek public comments on the draft through April 23. Included in it are definitions of hunting areas, quotas and bag limits and further clarifications on management plans.
The G&F defines 12 hunting areas in the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (WTGMA). Wolves are classified as trophy game animals year-round in 11 of the areas, the 12th being the seasonal “flex zone” where wolves will be classified as predators part of the year.
According to G&F Pinedale Field Office large carnivore biologist Ken Mills, the hunt areas were designed based on a number of factors. In past hunts in Montana, Mills explained, only four areas were designated and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) felt that the large sizes did not allow Montana wildlife management officials to direct harvest to higher areas of livestock damage or unacceptable ungulate loss. The FWS recommended the G&F use smaller areas to facilitate more specific harvest control.
“We felt using the (hunt) areas we’re proposing we can direct harvest where we want it and prevent some harvest where we don’t,” Mills said.
The G&F also decided to use existing elk-hunting areas for their internal wolf boundaries, meaning those boundaries that are not on the WTGMA or seasonal area limits. Hunters might be familiar with the boundaries already and the G&F will be able to closely monitor wolf impacts on specific big game populations and potentially direct more or less takes in those areas.
“It’ll be easy for the public and should allow us to address the elk populations,” Mills said.
Potential conflicts with livestock can also be addressed by adjusting quotas in specific hunt areas. Changes in the G&F’s monitoring of numbers regarding harvest and livestock predation will show the effectiveness of hunting in the overall human-caused mortality numbers.
Hunting quotas are set in the draft based on the most recent population numbers for the gray wolf and figures on mortality factors in recent years.
“(Hunting) harvest is basically the last step. We have to accommodate for damage control and we have to accommodate to a degree for natural mortality,” Mills said.
Hunter harvest will represent the portion of human-caused mortality that the G&F will use to manage the wolf population to the size that they are committed to in the management plan.
“Our basic assumption is that a 35-percent mortality will stabilize the population,” Mills said.
Adding in the 5 or so percent for natural mortality, the overall mortality rate for the species could be around 40.5 percent. At this rate, the “stabilized” population would not be expected to grow or shrink.
The G&F has committed to managing for a smaller population than the state is currently carrying and this, Mills explained, is where hunting quotas will be used for management purposes.
“In order to drop the population from 192 (in the WTGMA) to 172, which is our population objective at the end of the year, we need to kill 20 extra wolves,” Mills said.
The extra 20 wolves represents an additional 10.4-percent lost to human-caused mortality, meaning the total human-caused mortality for the year would be in the area of 45percent. This number would include lethal control, hunter harvest, illegal kills, vehicle collisions and any other possible human-caused wolf mortality.
Using the population numbers available, the G&F has drafted its regulations based on the following:
• There are 192 wolves in the WTGMA and the seasonal WTGMA; a 35-percent human-caused mortality rate will stabilize the wolf population.
• Thirty-five wolves, or 18.5 percent, are removed from the hunting quota for control actions and other non-harvest kills.
• Thirty-two wolves, or 16.5 percent, remain available for hunting to stabilize the population.
• To reduce the population as stated in its management objectives, an additional 10.4 percent or 20 wolves will be harvested, resulting in a quota of 52.
The 52-wolf quota will sound conservative to some, Mills said, given that an additional 35 wolves are also included in the human-caused mortality projections, but those 35 must be withheld from the quota to account for necessary agency-response and control actions.
The most recent G&F population studies show that 90 percent of the state’s wolves reside in Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks, the Wind River Reservation or the WTGMA, where they can be managed and monitored closely by the G&F. Only 10 percent of wolves and only 7 percent of breeding pairs will ever be outside the protected areas and living in the predator zone, Mills said.
The G&F will collect genetic samples from all wolves killed in hunting harvests and will request voluntary samples from any wolves killed as predatory animals. These samples will be used to monitor genetic connectivity throughout the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf populations. All wolf kills must be reported, including time and site of the kill, to a G&F game warden, district biologist or to personnel at a local G&F office, according to the draft regulations.
In a G&F news release, chief game warden Brian Nesvik said, “The proposed gray wolf management and hunting regulations represent a measured and scientifically sound approach to managing and hunting gray wolves which complies with the commission’s approved wolf management plan and Wyoming’s new wolf statute. The provisions of wolf management statutes and commission regulations cannot be implemented until gray wolves are removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, which we hope will occur this fall.”
The public can attend a March 22 G&F Commission meeting for further information on the addendum to the wolf management plan, developed during the recent state legislative session, and the draft regulations on management and hunting. The G&F Commission will meet this week at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Pinedale. On Wednesday, the commission will tour elk feedgrounds and the Trapper’s Point overpass project. Thursday, beginning at 8:45 a.m. the commission will hear reports including a gray wolf management overview.
April 9 at the Sublette County Library in Pinedale, an informational meeting begins at 7 p.m. on the G&F’s draft regulations.
The G&F will accept comments regarding gray wolf management (Chapter 21) and gray wolf hunting seasons (Chapter 47) until 5 p.m. on April 23. Written comments can be sent to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, ATTN: Wolf Regulation Comments, 3030 Energy Lane, Casper WY 82604. Comments will also be accepted at the next G&F Commission meeting in Casper, April 25-26.
In other wolf news:
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the constitutionality of the Congressional removal of wolves from the federal Endangered Species List in the Northern Rocky Mountain area, excluding Wyoming. The decision was announced Wednesday in Montana and was applauded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, who called the ruling common sense and science-based.
Plaintiffs in the case have said they might take their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for further consideration.