At least 625 wolves inhabited Montana at the end of 2012 according to state wildlife managers preparing the federally required annual wolf conservation and management report.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' complete report, which is expected to be available online at fwp.mt.gov by April 12, will show that Montana's verified minimum wolf count decreased more than 4% in 2012, compared to a 15% increase in 2011 and an 8% increase in 2010. The minimum wolf count is the number of wolves actually verified by FWP wolf specialists.
"We're making some progress," said FWP Director Jeff Hagener. "Confirmed livestock loss has been on a general downward trend since 2009, and we have more tools now for affecting wolf populations. In some areas, where hunting, trapping and livestock-depredation removals have been effective, it looks like the wolf population's growth has been curbed this year. In other areas the population may be leveling off, but we have more work to do. There are still places where we need to manage for a better balance among other Montana wildlife and with Montana's livestock producers and their families."
For the purpose of reporting minimum counts to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana is divided into three areas that reflect the former gray wolf federal recovery zones. The zones overlap and include more than one FWP region. Here's a summary of the 2012 minimum counts verified for those areas:
• The "Northwest Montana" area is located north of U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate-90 from the Idaho border east to I-15 along the Rocky Mountain Front. In this part of the state, where packs tend to be more remote and hunter and trapper access is generally more limited, counts showed 400 wolves in 100 verified packs and 25 breeding pairs, compared to 372, 85, and 23 respectively in 2011. An exception to this general upward trend was in the middle Clark Fork and Blackfoot areas where wolf numbers are similar to last year.
• The Montana portion of the "Central Idaho" area includes the portion of western Montana that lies south of U.S. Highway 12 and I-90, and west of I-15. In these broad valleys and ranchlands, FWP verified 93 wolves in 23 packs, with four breeding pairs, down from 147, 23, and seven respectively in 2011. This overall decrease in minimum counts reflects harvest and wolf removals in response to confirmed livestock losses in the Big Hole in recent years. In contrast, the Upper Bitterroot portion of this recovery area continues to support a stable count and number of packs.
• The Montana portion of the "Greater Yellowstone" area includes southern Montana, east of I-15 and south of the Missouri River. Verified wolf counts here have been stable over the past five years, with 132 wolves in 24 packs, and eight breeding pairs counted in 2012, compared to 134, 22, and nine respectively in 2011.
Hagener said 175 wolves were taken by hunters and trappers in the 2012 calendar year, compared to 121 taken by hunters in 2011. The 95 wolves harvested in 2013 as a result of the hunting and trapping seasons that concluded Feb. 28, will be considered in the 2013 minimum wolf counts.
A total of 108 wolves were removed through agency control efforts in 2012 to prevent further livestock loss and by private citizens who caught wolves chasing or attacking livestock, up from 64 in 2011.
Confirmed livestock depredations due to wolves included 67 cattle, 37 sheep, one dog, two horses and one llama in 2012. Cattle losses in 2012 were the lowest recorded in the past six years.
"We've taken a more aggressive approach to wolf-related livestock loss in recent years and this combined with regulated hunting and trapping is lowering livestock conflicts in some areas," Hagener said. "We'll continue to work to minimize loss for our livestock producers."
The minimum federal 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 of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The goal was achieved in 2002.
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, USFWS released 66 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. FWP began monitoring the wolf population, and managing livestock conflicts in 2004. After several court challenges wolves were successfully delisted in May 2011.
FWP’s report is part of the annual federal recovery update required by USFWS. The end of 2012 wolf population estimates for the northern Rocky Mountains—which will include wolves that inhabit Wyoming, Idaho and information about wolves in Yellowstone National Park—is expected to be available second week of April from the USFWS online at westerngraywolf.fws.gov.
The delisting of wolves in 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.
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