BILLINGS — Gray wolf numbers rose across most of the Northern Rockies last year but dropped in Montana after a concerted effort by officials there to drive down the population and curb livestock attacks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported Friday that a minimum of 1,783 wolves in more than 300 packs roamed the six-state region at the end of last year.
That marks a 5 percent increase from 2013 and continues the dramatic expansion of the predator’s population since wolves were reintroduced to parts of Wyoming and Idaho in the mid-1990s.
It also further bolsters claims by state officials that the animals can be managed effectively through hunting and trapping — without putting them back on the endangered species list.
Wolves were widely exterminated early last century across most of the Lower 48 states.
Wildlife advocates had warned of a quick decline in wolf numbers when federal protections were lifted in 2011; that hasn’t happened.
In 2014, four states had tallied more wolves than in the prior year. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it counted at least 333 wolves in Wyoming, 170 in Idaho, 70 in eastern Oregon and 56 in eastern Washington.
The number of wolves in Montana dipped 12 percent to at least 554 animals.
No wolves were counted in Utah.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reported that livestock attacks by the predators dropped to their lowest level since 2008.
Montana officials estimate the actual number of wolves to be 27 percent to 37 percent higher than the minimum count. That equates to more than 700 wolves statewide.
Hunters and trappers have killed more than 400 wolves in Idaho and Montana during the 2014-2015 season.
Across the six states, at least 161 wolves were killed in 2014 in response to livestock attacks, primarily by state and federal wildlife agents.
Only six of the animals were killed by landowners under a new Montana law that allows up to 100 wolves to be killed annually if they are considered a potential threat to livestock or humans. The law had been criticized by wildlife advocates as the equivalent of a year-round hunting season.
Wyoming’s gray wolf hunt was suspended this winter after a federal judge restored endangered species protections for the animals in the state last fall.