By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Over objections from some environmental groups and with the praise of many sportsmen and ranchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday announced the removal of wolves in Wyoming from the endangered species list.
The move returns management control over gray wolves in the state to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department after a series of long-running disagreements and legal challenges over the state’s dual approach to treating wolves as regulated trophy game in the greater Yellowstone area and as a predator with no protections across most of the state.
Long a contentious issue in the northern Rockies—especially in Wyoming communities close to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks—public battles over the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 are unlikely to end with the agency’s decision Friday. The animals have since multiplied and spread to communities across the region that lie far outside the park’s boundaries.
Some wildlife and parks advocates said Friday that they feared Wyoming’s wolf management plan could allow wolf hunting in Grand Teton National Park or the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. The Parkway is a 37-square-mile National Park Service unit that connects Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks.
“It is truly a shame that after spending millions of taxpayer dollars to recover the gray wolf in this region that the federal government would choose to permit wolf hunting within our national parks,” said Sharon Mader, Grand Teton program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement released Friday.
“Under the administration’s delisting rule, even those wolves seeking sanctuary in national park lands—America’s most sacred lands—could be hunted,” Mader said.
But that won’t happen in the short term, according to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Existing federal law prohibits wolf hunting in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, according to the agency, although it could take place in later years in the JDR Parkway.
A statement released Friday by USFWS said that “no wolf hunting will occur in the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and the Wind River Reservation in 2012, although hunting could occur in these three areas in future years.”
Exceeding recovery goals
State and federal wildlife managers have long maintained that wolves have met or exceeded recovery goals in their prime habitat areas around Yellowstone. Wyoming officials want to allow tightly managed hunting of wolves to help control problems like livestock predation or other conflicts in more heavily populated areas.
Some wolf advocates say populations are vulnerable to a number of risks ranging from disease to habitat loss and fragmentation, the animals should not yet be hunted, and that their numbers should be maintained at higher levels than state and federal targets require.
Wolves will be hunted only by permit and in limited numbers in Wyoming’s northwestern corner, but have no protections in the rest of the state, an area considered by biologists to be poor wolf habitat and well outside their core recovery area. Most recent estimates show that about 10 percent of Wyoming’s wolves live in areas where they would be classified as predators.
“Our primary goal, and that of the states, is to ensure that gray wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains remain healthy, giving future generations of Americans the chance to hear its howl echo across the area,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe. “No one, least of all Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, wants to see wolves back on the endangered species list. But that’s what will happen if recovery targets are not sustained.”
The federal agency will monitor wolf populations for at least five years to make sure their numbers continue to meet agreed-upon targets.
The most recent official minimum population estimate shows more than 1,774 adult wolves and more than 109 breeding pairs of gray wolves across the northern Rockies. Wolves have exceeded recovery goals for 10 consecutive years.
Wyoming will maintain at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs within state boundaries, the same management objectives adopted by Montana and Idaho.
Federal wildlife officials expect to see a long-term average of approximately 300 wolves in the greater Yellowstone region and approximately 1,000 wolves in the 400-mile northern Rockies region.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said the return of wolf management to the state “represents a significant achievement for the State of Wyoming” reached through cooperation with federal colleagues and with the “support of the state Legislature, the Congressional delegation, ranchers, outfitters and guides, and sportsmen.”
“I am proud of Wyoming’s wolf management plan,” Mead said in a statement released Friday.
Mead said he was confident the plan would maintain a sustainable wolf population and that the animal would not again end up on the endangered species list.
Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, called the decision “flawed” in a statement and fundraising appeal sent to members Friday.
“Clearly, Wyoming’s wolf management plan is not based on sound science or wildlife management principles, with over 80 percent of the state having a shoot-on-sight policy,” Clark said.
He said the GYC, based in Bozeman, Mont., will work to “ensure that wolves living in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks aren’t harmed by state management and that wolves are not hunted in the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.”
Friday’s decision takes effect Sept. 30. Starting in October, Wyoming will allow up to 52 wolves to be hunted in the trophy game area in the northwestern corner of the state. Wolf hunting will not be allowed in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
“We are taking a conservative approach to wolf hunting seasons during this time of transition from federal to state management,” said Brian Nesvik, wildlife chief for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, in a statement released Friday.
“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,” Nesvik said.
For more information on Wyoming’s wolf management plan and regulations, visit the Wyoming Game and Fish Department website.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].