As Wyoming returns to gray wolf hunting, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is taking it slow.
“We’re intentionally being conservative,” said Ken Mills, wolf specialist for Game and Fish.
The harvest quota of 44 wolves during the 2017 season wasn’t taken well by some of the residents who attended a Tuesday night meeting in Cody. Although it wasn’t an official public comment opportunity, questions from a few in attendance centered around disagreements in the number of wolves that can be taken and the timing of the season.
The gray wolf hunting season is set to run from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 and applies only to the northwest corner of the state, known as the trophy area. Wolves can be shot at any time in the rest of the state, where they're considered a predator rather than a trophy animal. There is also a "flex zone" south of Jackson, where wolves are considered a predator for most of the year, but protected as trophy animals for part of the fall/winter; the flex zone has a two-wolf quota.
Wyoming has been prohibited from hunting wolves since 2014, when a court ruled that Wyoming had inadequate regulations to manage the population. Last month, wolves were once again delisted and the state received the right to begin managing wolves, thanks to a decision from three appellate court judges in Washington, D.C.
“The unanimous decision by the appeals court put us on really solid ground,” Mills said.
There are also bills in the U.S. House and Senate to protect the state from further litigation, as several organizations are threatening lawsuits attempting to stop the hunts. And, with the new administration in Washington, everything is getting a second look, he said.
Wyoming is the southernmost state with gray wolves and also has the smallest population. Montana allows more wolves to be harvested than exist in Wyoming.
The Game and Fish is mandated to keep at least 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves in the state. There are now at least 377 wolves in the state, according to government estimates, with about 100 animals in Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation. The state’s target population after the hunting season is 160. But the key number, and the hardest to manage for, is breeding pairs. The mandate is in place to help stop inbreeding, said Mills, who has been involved in wolf research in the state since 2000.
Wolves can be shot in most of the state.
While hunting in the state was prohibited, wildlife officials were forced to kill, or “remove,” wolves.
“The only management action we have is removal,” said Luke Ellsbury, large carnivore biologist for the Game and Fish.
The higher the population increased while wolves were listed as protected species, the more biologists had to kill due to livestock losses and residential complaints. And biologists don’t like killing species that they’ve spent their careers tracking and studying.
“We’re maintaining for tolerance. We have the habitat, but we don’t have the tolerance for high populations of wolves. So it leaves us doing dirty work,” Ellsbury said. “We’d rather see hunters taking them.”
Attendees who spoke up doubted the department’s count, saying it was low, and wanted later hunting seasons.
It is difficult to count wolves, especially in areas too remote to collar individual animals with transmitters. And, due to the mandate on breeding pairs, the hunts are limited to the time before breeding begins, according to Mills.
“No packs are being disbanded. They’ll be set up to breed next year,” Mills said.
The public comment deadline for the wolf hunting season is 5 p.m. June 19. Mail comments to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wildlife Division, Attn: Regulations, 3030 Energy Lane, Casper WY 82604. Or make comments on the department’s website: https://wgfd.wyo.gov/WGFD_WebSurvey/CommentOnly.aspx
Editor's note: This version corrects the spelling of Luke Ellsbury's name, corrects the wolf quota to reflect the additional two wolves that can be taken in the flex zone and corrects the total number of estimated wolves in the state.