Grand Teton, Interior Department disagree over requirements for genetic viability.
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Grand Teton National Park officials are at odds with their parent agency, the Department of Interior, over a proposed federal rule that would end Endangered Species Act protection of Wyoming wolves.
Department of Interior officials released the proposed rule for removing protection of wolves in the Federal Register on Oct. 5. It comports with an agreement the agency reached with Gov. Matt Mead earlier this year, an agreement that led the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to adopt the state’s wolf management plan last month.
Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott raised concerns with that plan in a letter last month. Many of the reservations Scott expressed about Wyoming’s plan apply to the Department of Interior position.
In the Sept. 6 letter, Scott argued that the state’s plan to allow wolves to disperse to and from Idaho is not based on sound science.
The plan creates a “seasonal trophy game management area” south of Jackson where wolves would be treated as predators for most of the year and could be killed by any means without a license.
However, from mid-October to late February, wolves in the area would treated as trophy game. The more stringent trophy killing rules are supposed to allow wolves to disperse through Star Valley to and from Idaho, increasing the chance for a genetic mix between Yellowstone-area and other wolf populations.
Scott challenged the timing of the seasonal protection.
“The biological rationale for the selection of those dates is unclear,” she said in her letter. “… wolves disperse at every time of year.”
Federal officials have pledged “that any final action resulting from this proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and as effective as possible.”
Scott cited several studies that suggest peak months for wolf dispersal can range from October to June, depending on the location of the population. Biologists say allowing wolves to disperse between the two states is essential for maintaining the genetic diversity of Wyoming’s wolf population.
“Maintaining genetic connectivity between Wyoming and Idaho is important for the long-term resilience and persistence of wolves that reside in Grand Teton National Park,” Scott said. “The best way to ensure that genetic exchange occurs is to allow for dispersal year-round.”
Scott went on to suggest that the seasonal trophy game management area be made permanent, or that the period the seasonal trophy game management area is in effect be extended through April. Teton County Commissioners also have called for a permanent trophy game area in all of Teton County.
In the Oct. 5 proposed rule, Department of Interior officials argue for the mid-October to the end of February time frame, citing a study by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researcher Mike Jimenez.
The proposed federal rule agrees with Scott’s assertion that wolf dispersal “occurred year-round.” But it says the dispersal “peaked in winter (more than half of all dispersal occurred in the four months of November through February).”
In the federal rule, Department of Interior officials acknowledge that the necessary dispersal to and from Idaho could be affected by hunting of wolves in Wyoming.
“Specifically, these data indicate we may have averaged around one-and-a-half effective migrants [from central Idaho to the Greater Yellowstone area] per generation since reintroduction, with a large portion of this dispersal occurring in recent years when the central Idaho population was above 500 wolves,” the federal rule states. A wolf generation is four years.
“Post-delisting, populations will no longer be growing, may go through a period of population reduction before leveling off, and management will likely result in higher mortality rates for both dispersers and resident wolves,” the federal rule states. “Thus, past dispersal data is unlikely to be reflective of future effective migration rates.”
Elk feedgrounds could also affect the ability of wolves to migrate to and from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Department of Interior officials said. Wyoming operates 22 elk feedgrounds, including 13 within the Wyoming wolf trophy game management areas.
“These areas attract and could potentially hold dispersing wolves,” the federal rule says. “Many dispersing wolves in Wyoming, and even some established breeding pairs, temporarily leave their primary territories to visit the elk feedgrounds in winter.”
Under the proposed federal rule, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department could kill wolves that displace elk from feeding grounds if such displacement results in conflicts. “Such take will likely further reduce survival of dispersing wolves,” the federal rule says.
However, the proposed rule also says hunting and other killing of wolves could help dispersal of wolves into new territories.
“State management practices will periodically create localized disruptions of wolf pack structure or modified wolf density in select areas of suitable habitat that will create social vacancies or space for dispersing wolves to fill,” the federal rule says. “This outcome will likely increase reproductive success rates for dispersers that enter the [Greater Yellowstone area].”
Grand Teton officials also worry that hunting and state control of the species in the trophy game area might hurt wolves that spend part of the year inside the park.
“Our goal is to maintain wolves as part of the natural ecological landscape in the park, which will require designing hunt seasons and implementing management actions that maintain packs outside our boundary,” Scott said.
Grand Teton wolves that move out of the park to the Gros Ventre drainage during the winter when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is feeding elk on one or more feedgrounds in the area are of particular concern, Scott said.
“Over the last 12 years, more than 50 radio-collared wolves from 10 packs that spent significant amounts of time in Grand Teton National Park also visited the Gros Ventre drainage at some point,” she said. “Most of these visits occurred during the winter when the feedgrounds were occupied by elk.”
“This underscores the concern that multiple wolf packs could be eliminated or socially disrupted if wolves are targeted on or near feedgrounds without regard to pack affiliation,” Scott said. “We urge the [Wyoming Game and Fish Department] to consider all the implications of wolf management actions on or near feedgrounds carefully.”
In the proposed rule, federal officials acknowledged that some Grand Teton wolves would likely be killed after leaving the park.
“While some wolves and some wolf packs also occur in Grand Teton National Park and John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, these wolves and wolf packs usually have a majority of their home range in areas under the State of Wyoming’s jurisdiction; thus, these wolves are only subject to National Park Service regulation when on National Park Service lands,” the federal rule says.
To comment on the proposed rule electronically, go to http://www.regulations.gov. In the Enter Keyword or ID box, enter FWS–R6–ES–2011–0039. People can also mail comments to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R6–ES–2011–0039, Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM, Arlington, VA 22203.