In 1995-96 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reintroduced an “experimental- nonessential” 66 wolves into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to augment “naturally occurring” wolves that were beginning to populate northern Montana and Idaho from Canada.
The FWS established boundaries for this wolf recovery zone, which is called the Northern Rocky Mountains Distinct Population Segment (NRM DPS). Another recovery zone, called the Western Great Lakes DPS (WGL DPS), encompassed the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and parts of bordering states.
By 2002 and after nearly 100 million dollars were invested, wolves had met the FWS recovery goals. The stage was set to turn wolf management over to wildlife agencies in the three NRM DPS states upon FWS approval of each state’s wolf management plan. Idaho and Montana’s plans were quickly approved. Wyoming’s plan to “kill on sight” any wolf found outside the recovery zone stopped the two other states’ management of wolves in its tracks, and the entire issue was haggled out in U.S. District Court.
As wolf numbers grew, elk herds plummeted. Elk numbers in Idaho’s Lolo Zone dropped 80 percent. The Gallatin Canyon elk herd in Montana dropped from 1,048 in 1995 to 338 in 2002. And in Yellowstone, where hunter impacts on elk numbers can’t be blamed, the northern elk herd dropped from 19,000 in 1995 to 6,000 in 2008.
Wolf hunting got off to a sputtering start in Montana and Idaho in 2009, with Montana hunters killing 72 wolves and Idaho tallying 161. Both states set wolf harvest quotas that ensured the growth of their wolf populations would not be stunted. To deal with Wyoming, the FWS carved that state out of the plan, de-listing wolves in Montana and Idaho, but not in Wyoming.
Wolf advocacy groups sued, arguing that a biological population could not be parsed on state or political boundaries. U.S. District Judge Molloy set up a hearing date for June 2010, and the court agreed that the FWS had not established proof of genetic exchange between wolf populations.
Planned 2010 wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana were cancelled by the ruling. At the end of 2010, the NRM DPS had more than 1,700 wolves, 244 packs and at least 110 successfully breeding pairs. The region had exceeded FWS wolf recovery goals for 11 consecutive years.
On April 15, 2011, a rider was drafted to the 2011 U.S. Government budget bill reinstating the 2009 FWS decision to remove wolves from ESA protection in the Northern Rockies.
As soon as the budget bill became law, Idaho and Montana reinstated planned wolf hunts. During the 2011 wolf hunting season, Idaho hunters killed 254 wolves and trappers took 166. Montana allowed no trapping or archery season, instituted a harvest quota of 220 wolves, and harvested 166. Even with the wolf hunts and aggressive control measures dealing with problem wolves, wolf numbers grew by 7 percent in the NRM DPS.
In 2012, after Wyoming agreed to manage wolves with a statewide buffer above minimum management targets of at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs, the FWS accepted the state’s wolf management plan, and Wyoming hunters harvested 42 of that state’s 52 wolf quota. An additional 26 wolves were harvested outside of Wyoming’s Trophy Wolf Management Zone.
Montana authorized archery wolf hunting and trapping in the fall of 2012 and, like Idaho, they required trappers to attend a trapping school. Both states mostly eliminated their wolf harvest quotas, reserving the option of area closures if the wolf harvest exceeded goals.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) commission took that option after several tracking collared wolves were shot by hunters just north of Yellowstone, which is winter range for the predator-ravaged northern Yellowstone elk herd. The closure was lifted after about a month of legal wrangling between wolf advocates and pro-wolf-hunting groups.
The 2013 Montana legislature passed laws prohibiting the establishment of “no wolf hunting” buffer zones around either Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks. Montana also expanded wolf hunting opportunities by allowing wolf hunters to buy multiple tags, use electronic calls, eliminate the requirement to wear hunter orange clothing after general big game seasons, and reduced the price of a nonresident wolf tag from $350 to $50.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) and MFWP are both slow to attribute declining elk numbers solely to wolf predation. They point to their big game hunting districts that are at, or above, elk population management objectives, and blame a host of other causes to declining elk numbers in hunting districts that are below management objectives. The reality is Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are each required to manage wolves within specific FWS mandates. If those mandates are not adhered to, then the states run the risk of losing management control and having their wolf population placed back on the ESL.
HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES ABOUND
In both the WGL DPS and NRM DPS, the gray wolf has rebounded to exceed population targets by as much as 300 percent. Today, there are at least 6,100 gray wolves in the Lower 48 states, with a current estimate of 4,432 in the WGL DPS. This year, Michigan will become the sixth state to authorize hunting wolves since federal protections were removed. Hunters and trappers have killed about 1,100 wolves.
On June 10, 2013, FWS announced its intention to lift ESL protections on gray wolves across the Lower 48 states and return wolf management to states that already have, or are likely to have, gray wolves.
Big game hunters and livestock producers heralded the FWS announcement, but some scientists and dozens of lawmakers want to see more wolves in more places before lifting protections.
Lawsuits challenging the FWS decision are almost certain.
State wildlife agencies are relaxing rules and expanding wolf hunting and trapping opportunities to reduce wolf numbers. But actually harvesting a wolf isn’t that easy.
Other big game animals don’t have any ESL protective mandates. The wolf advocacy groups who protest the harvesting of wolves, and claim to “defend wildlife,” continue to show no empathy for the thousands of big game animals that have been lost—due to wolf predation— or the millions of dollars in big game hunter-generated revenue lost to the states that is used for management of all wildlife, including wolves.
Hunters are zeroing in on wolves. Ultimately, it will be up to hunters, the greatest predator—but the easiest to manage—to legally reduce wolves to levels that might begin to restore big game populations.