BILLINGS – The gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies dropped in 2010 — the first annual decline since the animal was reintroduced to the region 15 years ago, federal wildlife officials reported Friday.
The 5 percent drop, to an estimated 1,651 wolves in five states, comes amid increasing political pressure to allow more killing of the predators. Elected officials from the region want to strip wolves of their endangered status and allow hunters and game wardens to thin packs in response to persistent wolf attacks on livestock and big game herds.
Fewer wolves in Idaho accounted for the entire 2010 population drop. Wolf numbers increased slightly in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
State and federal biologists attributed Idaho’s 19 percent decline — to 705 wolves — in part to reduced monitoring efforts. They said the population overall remains healthy and has recovered from near-extermination early last century, when trappers and hunters killed almost all the wolves in the lower 48 states.
“By every biological measure, the (Northern Rockies) wolf population is fully recovered,” the government biologists wrote in Friday’s report.
This year’s decline, the biologists added, suggests the “wolf population may be stabilizing or even starting a slow decline to some as yet undetermined lower equilibrium, based on natural carrying capacity in suitable habitat and human social tolerance.”
It’s been more than a decade since the population reached the original recovery goal of 300 wolves and 30 breeding packs in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Wolves remain on the endangered list largely because of court rulings in lawsuits brought by wildlife advocates. They are concerned that state wildlife agencies would be too aggressive against wolves absent federal oversight.
The latest bid to lift those protections — through a rider tucked into a budget bill before the U.S. Senate — fell short when Democratic and Republican versions of the spending measure didn’t garner enough votes to advance Wednesday.
The rider was inserted at the request of Montana U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus. Tester said after the budget measures failed that he would continue pushing to turn wolf management over to the states.
“We’ll end up getting something passed as soon as we get a funding bill around here that works,” the Democratic senator said. “They’re going to be removed from the list. It’s just a matter of getting it through the process.”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who blocked efforts to take wolves off the list in the last Congress, issued a statement this week to The Associated Press saying he remained opposed to a legislative solution to the issue.
Even under federal protection, wolves are routinely killed in the region following livestock attacks, with 259 wolves removed last year.
Most were taken by federal wildlife agents who use aircraft to track and shoot down problem wolves. Twenty-nine were shot by private citizens in defense of private property.
Wildlife advocates said Friday’s report showed that the rush to get wolves off the endangered list had been fueled by overblown claims about the threat wolves pose.
The number of wolf attacks on cattle was virtually unchanged in 2010 at almost 200 animals. Sheep losses dropped sharply, from 721 in 2009 to 245 last year.
Garrick Dutcher, with the Ketchum, Idaho-based group Living with Wolves, said the sharp drop in the state’s wolf population undercuts the assumption that wolves have continued to multiply at the same rapid rate as in the first decade after their reintroduction.
“The wheels of Congress are turning, and the bills are out there based on this concept that there is some wolf-related emergency in the West,” Dutcher said. “It’s skewing the perception of what the reality is.”
Wolf numbers had been increasing by as much as 30 percent annually prior to the last several years, when growth began to taper. Some politicians including Idaho Gov. Butch Otter have contended the government’s wolf counts were far below actual numbers.
Montana’s wolf population increased to 566 animals in 2010, up from 524 in 2009. Wyoming’s population increased from 320 to 343.
The animals continued an expansion into Washington and Oregon that began two years. The combined wolf population in the two states was up to 37 animals at the end of 2010 — almost double the 19 wolves recorded in 2009.
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