JACKSON — State legislatures in Montana and Idaho have recently earned headlines for going over wildlife managers’ heads and adopting policies that require wolf populations be cut by as much as 90 percent.
But in Wyoming, aggressive mandates to kill off big numbers of the large native canines would quickly jeopardize the state’s ability to manage the species. The Equality State’s wolf population is essentially stable at a size that cannot shrink much without risking infringing on minimum numbers state wildlife managers agreed to when Endangered Species Act protections were revoked. That is by design. A “predator zone” that’s part of how Wyoming manages its wolves allows for unregulated killing on the fringes of the species’ range. That structure has worked to keep wolf numbers buffered above but also somewhat near the agreed-to minimums: 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs in areas where the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has jurisdiction.
“We don’t have the management flexibility that the other states have, because we are much closer to our commitments than the other states are,” Game and Fish Wolf Biologist Ken Mills told the News&Guide.
“That is the reality of it,” he said. “We have really tight sideboards that restrict what we can do based on where the population is now numerically and the commitments we made.”
A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park population model estimated 833 wolves at last count. Idaho Department of Fish and Game has estimated about 1,500 in the Gem State the last couple of years.
Statewide in Wyoming there were a minimum of 327 wolves at the beginning of 2021, according to Game and Fish’s recently released annual report. But management here is nuanced, and the majority of those wolves don’t count toward the state agency’s 100 wolf/10 breeding pair targets.
Only wolves in Wyoming’s “trophy game area,” 15 percent of the state, count. In the area, where wolves are tightly managed, the year-end count was 147 animals and 11 breeding pairs — the latter figure just one above the minimum.
In the Equality State wolf managers count animals one at a time and with greater precision than in more-populated Idaho and Montana. Elsewhere they tallied 123 wolves and seven breeding pairs in Yellowstone National Park. There were 21 wolves and two breeding pairs on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Lobos on the outskirts in the predator zone rounded out the state population, and there were 36 wolves and two breeding pairs in that large area bordering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Game and Fish primarily uses hunting, setting quotas for 13 zones annually, to maintain 160 wolves in the trophy area. During 2020, 51 wolves were targeted and 31 were killed. Changes proposed for 2021’s planned hunt are modest — four fewer wolves could be killed.
Wyoming’s wolf population has been “pretty consistent” the last three years, Mills said: “We’ve been able to maintain public tolerance of wolves on the landscape, and the process is still largely driven by the data we’ve collected in the field,” Mills said. “That’s not the direction of some other states that have wolves.”
While Wyoming’s management has gone smoothly of late, there’s a possibility that actions taken by the Montana and Idaho legislatures threaten turbulence beyond their borders.
Montana and Idaho’s wolves were delisted by Congress in 2011. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was required to surrender authority, the federal agency still has some oversight and in past wolf delisting rules has indicated scenarios that would trigger a “status review” to determine if northern Rockies wolves again need protection by the Endangered Species Act.
One of those scenarios is if the wolf population falls below the recovery levels of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pair in either Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Another scenario is if a “change in state law or management objectives would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.”
Litigation that could include Wyoming’s wolves triggered by Montana and Idaho lawmakers’ actions is not out of the question.
Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Andrea Zaccardi, a Victor, Idaho resident, said her organization is evaluating its options.
“The fact that Wyoming’s wolf population is so small makes the laws enacted in Idaho and Montana all that more threatening to the wolf population in the Northern Rockies as a whole,” Zaccardi told the News&Guide.