Wildlife lovers may already know that the U.S. Department of the Interior has removed the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from it’s endangered species list — leaving the wolves vulnerable to local State “management” policies.
In the State of Wyoming, the current management policy seems almost indistinguishable from an eradication effort; the state’s management plan, which went into effect Oct. 1, allows for the wolves to be shot on sight in nearly 85% of the State. This includes shooting them in their dens with young pups.
Within Wyoming’s Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (WTGMA), “wolves may be taken where designated as Predatory Animals.”
Some background information is in order here. According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department website:
In 1995 and 1996, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains increased rapidly and dispersed well beyond the original recovery area. Wolf numbers in this region met federal delisting criteria in 2002, but legal challenges have delayed delisting until now.
Differing Views on Wolves
However, some critics of the move hold that this delisting was done chiefly to appease ranchers who claim the wolves are killing their livestock. But this claim, while somewhat valid, is misleading; predation of livestock by wolves accounts for only a small fraction of livestock losses.
Further, many ranchers have been expanding their livestock grazing lands — often due to adverse grazing land impacts from recent wildfires and droughts — thus encroaching on what would normally be the wolves’ natural hunting territory. Wolves do not recognize the boundaries we put in place for them.
Even so, most wolf packs prey on deer and elk herds, reducing their numbers to more natural levels. Formerly, elk and deer populations, left unchecked by the absence of their natural predators, had become over-populated and had denuded most of the vegetation in and around Yellowstone.
It is this reduction in the elk population that also has hunters ticked off. Many hunters claim that wolf predation has diminished the number of “prize” (male) elk available.
So, while ranchers largely see the wolves as a costly and destructive nuisance, at best, hunters view them as competitors and thieves. Naturalists and ecologists, on the other hand, hail their presence as proof that an unbalanced ecosystem — one formerly lacking its main predators — can be restored to its former, robust character.
As always, the situation on the ground is more complex than simply the number of wolves.
The Current Gray Wolf Management Policy in Wyoming
According to the same WGFD website:
Under state management, wolves in Wyoming are managed under a dual classification system. Wolves in northwest Wyoming are designated and managed as Trophy Game Animals. Wolves in the rest of Wyoming are designated as Predatory Animals.
Wyoming’s wolf management plan also includes a “flex area” defined as the Seasonal Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (SWTGMA), where wolves are classified as Trophy Game Animals from October 15 to the last day in February of the subsequent year, and as Predatory Animals for the remainder of the year. This provision was included to help ensure genetic interchange with other wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains. [emphasis added]
There are a total of 12 separate hunt areas in the WTGMA and SWTGMA. Wolves in these designated are managed under a “mortality quota system”. Under this system, wolf hunting season in each area “will remain open until the quota for the area is reached, or until December 31, whichever occurs first.”
In those areas where the wolves are designated as Predatory Animals, Wyoming State law does not require a hunting license to take a wolf, and there are “no closed seasons or bag limits”.
Two Approaches to Wildlife Management
According to WGFD chief Brian Nesvik:
“We are taking a conservative approach to wolf hunting seasons during this time of transition from federal to state management. We need time to assume the important responsibilities of wolf population monitoring, sport harvest management, and meeting Wyoming’s commitments to wolf conservation in our state.”
But many conservationists and wildlife biologists doubt that the plan’s stated intent of ensuring “genetic interchange” will work. They assert that a thriving, broad-ranging, wolf population is key to preserving the ecosystem in which they live (where they are designated a ‘keystone species‘), and, that preserving these scattered populations of wolves (outside of Yellowstone National Park) is crucial to maintaining the genetic fitness — and long-term survival — of the entire population of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone region.
An Earlier Legal Victory for Wolf Conservationists
In a 2009 lawsuit brought by 12 environmental groups, it was argued that, in allowing so many wolves to be killed outside the park, smaller populations would grow isolated from one another, which would force inbreeding, weakening the wolves and making them more susceptible to disease and vulnerable to drought.
The US District court judge hearing the case agreed with this argument and, for a time, overturned the Interior Department’s move to let State’s manage the wolf populations (and allowed only wolves that killed livestock to be killed).
Since then, however, the ranchers’ cause has gained ground, with the federal government recently returning control of the wolves’ fate to the State.
The Wolf Population as It Stands Now and What You Can Do
As of December 2011, wildlife biologists counted 328 wolves in the entire state. including 48 packs and 27 breeding pairs. This included 224 wolves, 36 packs, and 19 breeding pairs outside Yellowstone National Park.
Conservation groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are spearheading efforts to restore the wolves’ endangered species status.
Watch this short video (below) on Wyoming’s gray wolves…and, if you feel that this wolf management plan is inhumane and poorly conceived, contact Secretary of the Interior Salazar and insist that they be returned to the endangered species list until the state implements a viable, long-term, wildlife management plan.