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WY: Statute conceals wolf kill details

Incidents involving legal wolf deaths are not public information, officials say.

By Mike Koshmrl

A small agricultural valley on the fringes of Jackson was the site last year of steady conflict between a wolf pack and the cattle dotting the narrow band of pastureland straddling Spring Gulch Road.

Both wound up on the losing end, as did the livestock producers who endured the bloodshed. Eleven Pinnacle Peak Pack wolves were felled by managers with traps and rifles who were intent on stemming drawn-out depredations that claimed at least eight head of cattle over the summer and fall.

The canine-cow clash in Spring Gulch continued this year, but out of the public spotlight. Cattlemen didn’t return phone calls, and Wyoming wildlife managers, who gained authority over wolves this spring, said they were prohibited by state law from discussing any incident that involves the legal killing of Canis lupus.

“We can’t give out any information on any action that has been taken,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Regional Supervisor Brad Hovinga said in a September interview.

At issue is a 5-year-old statute that’s intended to protect the identity of hunters who kill wolves for recreation and managers who must dispatch the large carnivores as part of their job. It’s being interpreted so broadly that it’s illegal, state officials say, to disclose not only lethal actions taken against a wolf pack but even the number of wolves that have been killed this year in Jackson Hole, or any other specific area in Wyoming.

Attorneys have advised Game and Fish that it can give out data on wolf deaths that’s no more specific than a statewide aggregate number.

Just two sentences

The statute shielding information about wolf conflict from public and media view is brief, just two sentences. The law on the books prohibits the release of “any information” about the “number or nature” of wolves legally killed, unless in aggregate form or with permission from the person who is involved.

“Information identifying any person legally taking a wolf within this state,” the statute reads, “is solely for the use of the department or appropriate law enforcement offices and is not a public record.”

Brian Nesvik, Game and Fish’s chief game warden, didn’t recall why or how the statute came about, except that it dates to 2012. The regulation, he said, affects not only what information Game and Fish shares with the public, but also what it shares with federal agencies and researchers.

“Basically,” Nesvik said, “we’ve had to treat them just as we would any member of the public.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s dump of information about the lethal taking of wolves comes as an annual wolf management report that typically is released in April. Hunter harvest is also reported in real time in online reports, a necessity because the 12 areas close one at a time as quotas are reached. The annual report details information about the fate of each wolf pack, listing its size, wolves that dispersed, livestock it killed and the number of animals harvested by hunters and “controlled” by managers.

The document, Nesvik said, is not exempted from the statute.

“We conduct a review to ensure that the report complies with the statute,” he said, “but it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re taking a whole year worth of data.”

Kill numbers are down

What is known about wolf-livestock conflict in Wyoming this year is that it has waned, at least judging by the total number of lobos that have been killed by Game and Fish and its federal contractor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services.

Through the end of September the tally of controlled wolves in the Equality State stood at 57, Large Carnivore Supervisor Dan Thompson said. In 2016, a record year for conflict, 103 wolves were shot or trapped in the first nine months of the year.

The return of hunting to the landscape could be one factor in the dip.

On the outskirts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Wyoming’s most conflict-prone areas, wolves are now treated as predators and have been targeted by unregulated gunfire and traps since April, when an appeals court gave the state jurisdiction over the species. In the Yellowstone region’s interior, where wolves are managed trophy game, a hunt started Oct. 1. All told hunters have killed 46 animals, some of which likely could have run into trouble with livestock and been killed for their misdeeds.

Game and Fish has also been experimenting with methods other than killing to deter wolves from marauding pastures and rangeland.

“In the Jackson region since last May we have successfully employed some nonlethal techniques to prevent damage that seemed to work,” Nesvik said.

“The primary newer, innovative thing that we used was a combination of the big inflatable windsock, Gumby guys combined with strobe lights,” he said. “That actually did work to prevent some damage for about six to seven weeks, and then it appears that they became complacent.”

Conservationists who watchdog Wyoming’s wildlife managers had differing takes on the restricted flow of information about wolf conflict.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition said in an email the statute “doesn’t really affect” its staff’s ability to do its job.

“Our goal is the big picture piece,” Communications Coordinator Beth Kampschror said, “that Wyoming (and other states in the Greater Yellowstone) manage for a stable population of wolves.”

Don’t want to talk about it

The Wyoming Wildlife Advocates’ Roger Hayden was more displeased with what he called secrecy about a topic of significant public interest: wolf conflict with livestock.

“I think we should know about it as it happens, just like we know whenever a wolf is killed by a hunter,” Hayden said. “It’s put up on their website.

“I don’t understand why it has to be secret,” he said. “It’s controversial, and that’s why they don’t want to talk about it.”

There has been little griping that Nesvik has heard about information that is being kept under wraps because of the statute. There’s been no discussion he is aware of about pursuing an amendment to the only statute Game and Fish deals with that concerns the flow of information about a specific species. The way things stand, the chief warden said, is transparent enough.

“I think the current statute is reasonable,” Nesvik said. “The current state statute provides enough information that the people who own this resource — the people of the state of Wyoming — are able to tell and determine with the information we provide how their resource has been impacted or used.”