Montana's Wolf Population Up 15 Percent in 2011

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At least 653 wolves were counted by FWP wolf specialists at the end of 2011 according to the annual wolf conservation and management report released Wednesday by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

FWP’s report, which is available online at fwp.mt.gov, shows Montana's minimum wolf population increased by 87 wolves or about 15 percent in 2011, compared to an eight percent increase last year and a five percent increase in 2009. The minimum wolf count is the number of wolves actually counted by FWP wolf specialists, and likely is 10 to 30 percent fewer than the actual wolf population.

The minimum Montana wolf population counts include 653 wolves, in 130 verified packs, and 39 breeding pairs. Montana’s minimum pack count and number of breeding pairs also increased from 2010.

"We believe we have to reduce the wolf population in Montana,” said FWP Director Joe Maurier. FWP’s objective with the 2011 hunting season was to reduce the population by about 25 percent.

“We were aiming for a minimum population of about 425 after the hunting season,” Maurier said. “Despite a six-month season that started in September, hunters were only able to take enough wolves to reach 75 percent of our wolf hunting quota and, with livestock depredation down from last year, there were fewer control actions, so it makes sense that the wolf population grew in 2011. We will definitely seek additional management tools to reach a better balance among wolves, prey populations, hunters, landowners and others.”

FWP obtained full management authority of wolves in Montana upon the federal delisting of the Rocky Mountain gray wolf in May 2011.

“We’re committed to using our authority to responsibly manage Montana’s wolf population while addressing conflicts with livestock and other wildlife populations,” Maurier said. “We’re also committed to allowing hunters, who are showing a real interest in pursuing wolves, to become even more involved in Montana’s approach to wolf management.”

Maurier said FWP is now mapping out additional tools wildlife managers may need to increase the wolf harvest in 2012, including regulation changes that could allow hunters to take more than one wolf, the purchase of more than one hunting license, and the possibility of trapping. Also possible are new rules to allow the use of electronic calls, more wolf hunting educational opportunities, a reconsideration of statewide quotas, and a longer wolf hunting season.

“FWP understands that the continued increasing trend is alarming for many Montanans who look for FWP management to cap and reduce the wolf population. That is our intent,” Maurier said.

Some of the changes could be implemented by the FWP Commission, others would require a change in state law. The FWP Commission will consider tentative wolf season proposals in May and will make final decisions for the 2012-13 season in July.

“We’re talking about a number of approaches but we want to hear from hunters, landowners and others,” Maurier said. “FWP will plan for several public opportunities to get the public involved—including a March 7 FWP Commission work session in Helena. We’ll be focused on increasing the capacity for harvest in a responsible and ethical manner.”

The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs—successfully reproducing wolf packs—and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years and well distributed throughout the recovery area. The goal was achieved in 2002, and the wolf population has increased every year since. Montana’s wolf plan calls for maintaining at least 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves.

FWP’s report will be included in the annual federal recovery update produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of post-delisting monitoring, which is required by the Endangered Species Act. That federal report, expected to be released next week, will also chronicle the wolf population’s status in Idaho and Wyoming.

Each of Montana’s three geographic regions inhabited by wolves showed some increases in 2011:

  • northwestern Montana's population exhibited the greatest increase where the population grew to a minimum of 372 wolves, in 85 verified packs, and 23 breeding pairs. Eight of the packs reside on reservations where they are managed by Tribal authorities.
  • western Montana's population increased slightly to at least 147 wolves in 23 packs, and seven breeding pairs.
  • southwestern Montana's population increased slightly to at least 134 wolves in 22 packs, and nine breeding pairs.

About 24 packs occur along Montana's border with Idaho, 19 of which are included in the Montana estimate. This demonstrates the continued influence of the robust wolf population in Idaho on Montana’s wolf population. Additionally, one pack is shared with Wyoming and is included in Montana’s minimum population estimate.

Maurier noted that Montana's wolf population remains well above recovery goals. "That means an intensive management strategy is needed to strike the right balance between wolves, other wildlife, the available habitat and the people who live and work in Montana,” he said.

Wolf recovery in Montana continues to be accompanied by livestock killed by wolves and wolves killed to resolve conflicts, as chronicled in the latest report. Of the 216 wolf deaths documented in 2011, 64 were related to livestock depredations, eight were illegal kills, 121 were hunter harvests up to Dec. 31, 2011, and vehicles or trains struck eight wolves. Others died from a variety of causes common to all wildlife species, including poor health and old age. An additional 45 wolves were taken by hunters between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15 of this year.

One pack was removed entirely due to chronic conflicts with livestock. Ten others disbanded and no longer exist due to some level of conflict removal or pack-member dispersals.

Cattle deaths confirmed by USDA Wildlife Services in Montana decreased from 87 in 2010 to 74 in 2011, and confirmed sheep death losses dropped from 64 to 11. About 17 percent of Montana wolf packs were confirmed to have killed livestock, down from 31 percent in 2010. One horse and two domestic dogs were also confirmed killed by wolves. Additional losses and injuries occurred, but either could not be verified or were determined to be "probable" wolf kills.

Maurier said that 57 wolves were killed through agency control efforts to prevent further depredations, down from 128 in 2010. Private citizens killed an additional seven wolves caught chasing or attacking livestock, compared with 13 in 2010.

A variety of nonlethal predation deterrents were also employed in Montana in cooperation with landowners to reduce the risk of wolf attacks. FWP again collaborated in the Blackfoot Challenge range-rider project as well as a new project in the Big Hole Valley. FWP staff worked with landowners to provide fladry and advice on keeping wolves out of livestock areas.

The recovery of the wolf in the northern Rockies remains one of the fastest endangered species comebacks on record. In the mid 1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, 66 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

FWP has led wolf management under the federal guidelines since 2004. The delisting of wolves in May 2011 allows Montana to manage wolves in a manner similar to how bears, mountain lions and other wildlife species are managed, which is guided by state management plans, administrative rules, and laws.

To learn more about Montana’s wolf population, visit FWP online at fwp.mt.gov. Click Montana Wolves.