Yellowstone Wolf Population Tops 1,000, States Seek Delisting

Published May 1, 2006

The population of gray wolves in and around Yellowstone Park has reached more than 1,000, according to a March 10 federal government report.

The number of wolves, including nearly 100 breeding pairs, is more than sufficient for the wolves’ removal from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection. But disagreements between Wyoming and the federal government have delayed the wolves’ delisting.

Further Protection Unnecessary

By 2003, the gray wolf population in and around Yellowstone had reached approximately 760 animals, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined was sufficient to remove the animals from ESA protection. While protection was considered no longer necessary, FWS nevertheless required Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to submit wolf management plans as a prerequisite to delisting the wolf, to satisfy FWS that the wolves will not fall back into endangered status.

Two years ago, the FWS approved the wolf management plans submitted by Idaho and Montana, but it has refused to approve Wyoming’s proposal. Until an agreement is reached between Wyoming and the federal government, wolves cannot be delisted in any of the three states.

Wyoming, Feds Clash

The Wyoming-FWS dispute is currently being litigated in a federal appellate court. Wyoming is seeking to the court determine whether its proposed management plan meets the criteria for ESA delisting.

The FWS argues Wyoming’s plan will be ripe for litigation only after the federal office issues a final and formal decision, due in July, on the proposed plan. Wyoming counters that the agency’s repeated objections to its plan, while approving the plans of Idaho and Montana, amounts to an FWS denial that is suitable for litigation. By stalling on a “final” decision, Wyoming argues, the FWS has benefitted from more than two years of a de facto decision without having to defend it in federal court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit is considering the matter but has yet to rule on whether there has been a de facto final decision ripe for litigation.

Danger to Livestock

The main source of contention between Wyoming and the FWS is Wyoming’s proposal to allow ranchers to kill wolves on sight outside the Yellowstone-Grand Teton region.

Worried about the toll on livestock the increasing number of wolves will have outside the protected Yellowstone-Grand Teton region, the state of Wyoming and area ranchers argue wolves migrating to other areas of the state should be classified as nuisance predators. The FWS prefers to allow the killing of wolves only in defense of an imminent attack on livestock.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the FWS in Helena, Montana, believes limited hunting would be beneficial for the wolf population. Bangs told the Associated Press on May 9 that when people are allowed to hunt, they learn to respect an animal more. Feelings of stewardship replace feelings of resentment, Bangs said.

The wolf population has grown far beyond what is necessary for sustainability, Wyoming officials and ranchers contend, and livestock is at risk because government protections are stronger than needed.

Wolves were first reintroduced to the Yellowstone region 10 years ago. Their numbers have surpassed 1,000 and are growing every year. “I’m eating crow,” said Bangs. “I never thought we’d get that high.”

Dispute Affects Neighbors

Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, said the ongoing conflict between Wyoming and the federal government is causing frustration among Montana officials.

“Montana and Idaho are directly impacted by developments in Wyoming,” said Sime. “We would like to see Wyoming resolve their differences with the federal government in a timely fashion. This would allow us to fully implement our management plans. Unfortunately, litigation does not always go hand-in-hand with timely resolution.

“The people that live with wolves are affected by them, both positively and negatively,” Sime observed. “People’s willingness and ability to live with wolves is in many ways tied to our ability to properly manage them. We don’t want to treat wolves solely as predators, yet we must address conflicts as they occur.”

Sime notes population management is a necessary effort. “Hunting and trapping are tools to manage wolf populations. We don’t look at this as a first option, but when wolf populations become swollen they begin preying on livestock, and we have to manage them.

“Life is fundamentally different now that we have wolves back,” Sime added. “Our culture is greatly impacted by wolves.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.