The number of gray wolves in Montana continues to decline under the state’s management efforts but remains above federal recovery goals, according to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks department.
State officials released an annual report detailing the status of the controversial animal, which remains the subject of scrutiny and debate throughout the West.
The verified population at the end of 2014 was 554 wolves, a decrease of 73 over the previous year, according to the annual wolf conservation and management report released this week by FWP.
Northwest Montana had the largest collection of wolves among the state’s three designated regions. There were a minimum of 338 wolves in 91 verified packs with 17 breeding pairs in this corner of the state. In 2013, there were 412 wolves in 104 packs with 16 breeding pairs.
The Montana portion of the Greater Yellowstone area had a minimum of 122 wolves in 23 packs with 11 breeding pairs.
The state’s portion of the area encompassing Central Idaho had 94 wolves in 20 packs with six breeding pairs.
Throughout the entire state, there were a minimum of 134 wolf packs compared to 152 the previous year. The number of breeding pairs increased from 28 to 33, according to wildlife biologists that surveyed the state. The federal recovery goal for Montana, which says the state must maintain a viable, self-sustaining population, is 10 breeding pairs.
Agency officials estimate the actual number of wolves in Montana to be 27-37 percent above the minimum count. There were an estimated 653 wolves in Montana in 2011.
Hunters killed 206 wolves during the state’s 2014-15 hunting season, which was expanded to six months and was the fourth consecutive general hunting season and third that allowed trapping since wolves were delisted in 2011.
The general rifle and archery season began in September with activists seeking to disrupt hunters’ chances by following them in the field. The season concluded March 15 with 129 wolves killed. The trapping season ended Feb. 28 with 77 wolves taken.
In 2014, 213 wolves were killed by hunters and trappers during the calendar-year portion of the season compared to 231 taken in the 2013 calendar year.
Last year wolves killed 35 cattle, six sheep and one horse in 2014, a 46 percent drop in livestock depredations. The number of lost cattle was the lowest total in eight years. “Among the best news is that confirmed wolf depredations on livestock again took a significant drop in 2014,” FWP Director Jeff Hagener said in a news release.
There were 308 reported wolf mortalities last year, down from 335 in 2013. Among those, 301 were human-related, including 213 legal harvests, 57 control actions to further reduce livestock depredations — down from 75 in 2013 — as well as 11 vehicle strikes, 10 illegal killings, six killed under the newly-enacted Montana State Senate Bill 200, two capture related mortalities, one euthanized due to poor health and one legal tribal harvest. One known wolf died of natural causes and six others of unknown causes, according to FWP. “Montana’s wolf management program seeks to manage wolves just like we do other wildlife—in balance with their habitat, with other wildlife species and with the people who live here,” Hagener said.