By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 17, 2011
A draft Wyoming Game and Fish plan would give officials broad authority to kill wolves that upset elk feeding, prey on livestock, damage property or cause economic damage.
The plan also would require state officials to maintain a “recovered, stable and sustainable” population of the predators that numbers at least 100 in 10 packs. Wyoming would commit to monitoring wolf genetics and would allow migration of at least one wolf into the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population each generation — about four years.
Officials will present the draft Wyoming Gray Wolf Management Plan at a meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Center for the Arts. It seeks to accomplish management goals through public hunting.
The plan, a precursor to hunting regulations, anticipates the federal government removing the wolf from Endangered Species Act protection as agreed to with the state.
Wolves were transplanted to Yellowstone in 1995 under the act and have flourished to the point there are an estimated 19 packs and 230 wolves in Wyoming outside Yellowstone.
The plan creates the Wyoming Trophy Game Management Area — about 12 percent of the state’s total area — in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Wolves would be hunted there by license during a hunting season. Elsewhere they would be classified as predators and could be killed by any means at any time.
The plan gives managers tools to kill or hunt wolves to preserve elk and other ungulate numbers.
For example, hunting seasons may be extended to “realize hunting quotas that are not significantly filled during the proposed hunting season, reduce wolf populations in areas where they are causing unacceptable impacts to ungulate herds, alleviate predation and/or conflicts at state-operated elk feedgrounds, or reduce wolf populations in areas that experience persistent livestock depredation,” the document states.
An unacceptable impact is defined as “any decline in a wild ungulate population or herd that results in the population or herd not meeting the state population management goals or recruitment levels established for the population or herd,” the document states.
Wolves also could be killed or targeted by hunting regulation if they disrupt feeding on any of the 22 state feedgrounds located in the proposed trophy game area.
“The department may take wolves that displace elk from feedgrounds in the Wyoming Trophy Game Management Area if it results in one of the following conflicts: damage to private stored crops; elk co-mingling with domestic livestock; or displacement of elk from feedgrounds onto highway right of way causing human safety concerns,” according to the document.
The draft plan shows that wolves impacted all but six of 22 state-run elk feedgrounds in Wyoming. In some instances elk moved from one feedground to another, forcing Game and Fish to adjust.
“This work is difficult in winter conditions, because transport routes are usually unplowed and often shared with recreationists, and hay is difficult to move because of equipment and manpower limitations,” the agency says.
The document also says those impacts are temporary.
“A study of collared elk on the Gros Ventre feedgrounds found that elk displaced by wolves in that area often returned within a day of being displaced,” according to the document.
Wildlife managers can also kill wolves to minimize economic impacts.
“The economic impacts in all areas occupied by wolves in Wyoming should be minimal and manageable while wolves are under state management,” the document states. “If not, management actions will be taken to minimize impacts while ensuring management objectives are met.”
The draft plan’s authors estimated wolves could have reduced revenue from hunters if projections before they were restored proved correct. Those projections could have resulted in “annual revenue losses of $232,000 to $465,000 from reduced license sales and losses of $207,000 to $414,000 from additional hunter expenditures,” according to the document.
Game and Fish could not document if the prediction came true, however.
“To date there are no definitive data showing a decrease in hunter harvest or opportunity due to wolf predation on elk or moose in Wyoming,” the plan says.
As for livestock losses, from 1995 to 2010, Wyoming lost “at least 478 cattle, 482 sheep, 29 dogs and 15 ‘other’ livestock,” the document states.
The plan allows people to kill wolves actively engaged in destruction of property.
Once wolves are removed from Endangered Species Act protection, the state would commit to 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs.
Including the Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation wolves would be managed for 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.
The document prohibits state officials from managing wolves if the population drops below a point that would require them to again be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Hunters both inside and outside the predator zone would be required to report their wolf kills and provide body parts from the kill within a certain time.
People who wish to comment on the draft Gray Wolf Management Plan can write to Wolf Plan Comments, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 5400 Bishop Blvd., Cheyenne, WY 82006. People can also submit comments by fax to 307-777-4650. Comments are due by 5 p.m. Sept. 9.
Wolves and elk
Much discussion has centered on the effect of wolves on Wyoming’s elk herds. The draft state wolf plan and the 2011 Big Game Management Information Summary offer some insight to the debate.
The elk population statewide in 2010 was above objective. Game and Fish figures show a census of 104,912 animals last year, more than 21,200 animals above the objective of 83,640.
The census total does not include eight of the state’s 35 herd units for which the department did not have or provide data. The statewide objective of 83,640 is for all 35 herds.
Most herd units meet or exceed population objectives. Nearly 49 percent of elk herd units in the state are above objective, about 23 percent are at objective and about 6 percent are below objective.
“At objective” means within 10 percent of the Game and Fish goal. Data is unavailable for about 23 percent of herd units.
Biologists estimate wolves kill about 1 percent of the Jackson Elk Herd a year, according to the document. The herd numbered 11,976 last winter.
However, local wildlife managers are worried about the ratio of calf-to-cow elk in some local herd segments, especially in the Gros Ventre. There, officials say, ratios have dipped below 25, the level needed to sustain the desired population.
Each wolf kills an average of about 22 ungulates per year, according to the document. With the Dec. 31, 2010, count of 230 wolves outside Yellowstone in Wyoming, that would calculate to be total of 5,060 ungulates killed by wolves last year.
Hunters killed 25,560 elk in Wyoming during the 2010 season, according to Game and Fish numbers.
Wolf kills include other ungulates such as moose and deer. Wildlife managers are particularly worried about the impact of wolves on moose in the Jackson Hole area.
“Research conducted in other elk-moose-wolf systems suggests that wolf predation may significantly reduce the populations of alternative prey that exist at lower population densities than elk, such as moose and caribou,” the document says.