By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Wyoming officials wanted wolves removed from much of the state, and their hands-off management method has worked as designed.
Wolves can be killed in a “predator zone,” which covers 85 percent of the state, by almost any method, at any time, in any number and without a license. The anything-goes rules have had the desired effect: Wyoming Game and Fish Department harvest reports show that 31 of the canines have been killed in the predator zone since October. That’s more than the 20 to 30 animals department biologists estimated roamed the zone last year.
“It appears the predator zone is reducing wolf numbers there significantly,” said Mark Bruscino, Game and Fish’s large carnivore supervisor. “That’s what the management strategy was designed to do.”
Wyoming’s latest wolf management plan regulates wolf hunting in a trophy game area that encompasses about 15 percent of northwest Wyoming, including most of Jackson Hole. A portion of the trophy game area south of Highway 22 and Wilson is a flexible zone that rotates between being a free-fire zone and regulated hunting area.
The concept of the predator zone, Bruscino said, is to reduce wolf numbers in areas where they chronically feed on livestock, sheep and other domestic animals.
“Part of the strategy was to allow hunters to harvest some of those animals, and it appears to be working,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a reduction in conflicts both in and outside of the trophy game hunting area.”
State wildlife officials do not know the number of wolves remaining in the state’s predator zone. The population, Bruscino said, would have increased above the 20 to 30 estimate by “about 35 percent” due to pups that were reared last spring.
Wyoming’s approach to counting wolves differs considerably in the two management zones.
Wolf counts in the predator zone are not a priority, Bruscino said. But in the trophy-game zone, Game and Fish will be “intensively surveying” the wolf population using mostly aerial methods over the next five weeks.
“I’m very confident it’s going to be over the delisting minimums,” he said.
When wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming last fall, the state committed itself to maintaining at least 100 individual animals and 10 breeding pairs.
Regan Smith, a sheep farmer who raises 1,100 ewes near the predator-zone boundary, was underwhelmed that wolf populations have taken a hit near his Powell ranch.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Smith said. “Those wolves don’t know the boundary.”
Smith said he quit grazing his ewes in what is now the trophy-game area in 2001, after losing about 20 animals to wolves.
The sheep farmer supports the state’s two-pronged wolf management approach.
“I think it’s a good, workable situation,” Smith said. “We’ll have to adjust as time goes on if numbers get too low. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.”
Duane Smith, the wild species program director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said the state’s management plan outside the trophy hunt area is “essentially an eradication program.”
“If you cut off the ability of a species to disperse, you essentially fence them in,” Smith said.
The alliance has filed one of three lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try to re-establish protections for wolves in Wyoming.
But Bruscino defended the predator zone approach.
“Minnesota, Idaho and Montana also have incredibly liberal hunting provisions in some areas,” he said. “They aren’t that dissimilar from the predator area.”