Five years after the contentious decision to remove federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, Montana’s gray wolf population remains healthy and among the largest in the Northern Rockies, according to state wildlife officials.
The state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department reported a minimum count of 536 wolves across Montana in 2015, 18 fewer than the previous year but well above the federally-mandated minimum of 150.
Biologists confirmed a minimum of 32 breeding pairs, down from 34 in 2014. The federal and state standard requires a minimum of 15 breeding pairs.
The agency released its annual wolf report April 1, showing that the state’s wolf population has declined each of the last three years. In 2011, when wolves were delisted, there were a minimum of 650 in Montana.
The findings come as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is slated to end its five-year post-delisting monitoring program of the population, although five conservation groups have expressed their intent to file a lawsuit seeking to extend the federal oversight.
Gray wolf numbers rose across most of the Northern Rockies last year and hit their highest level in two decades, according to the USFWS. The agency on Friday reported a minimum of 1,904 wolves at the end of last year in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
Congress lifted protections for wolves across the region except for Wyoming in 2011.
“Wolf management in the 21st Century requires us to strike a balance socially and biologically,” stated FWP Director Jeff Hagener. “We feel like we are getting closer to that as Montana’s wolf population continues to be stable, healthy and far above recovery goals.”
Wolves killed 64 livestock last year across Montana, an increase of 17 from the previous year, according to FWP. This included 41 cattle, 21 sheep and two horses.
Northwest Montana remains home to the largest collection of wolves in the state. The minimum wolf count increased from 338 in 2014 to 349 in 2015. Twenty of the 85 known packs met the breeding pair criteria.
“It is important to remember that these are minimum counts, meaning that only wolves FWP could actually document as being on the landscape were included,” stated John Vore, FWP game management bureau chief. “As wolf numbers have increased there is just no way we can physically count them all. We know there are more wolves out there. According to our best estimates the actual number of wolves is at least 30 percent more than the minimum count.”
Since wolves were delisted in Montana in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided oversight as FWP took over management of the population and established a hunting and trapping season. The federal monitoring program is slated to end in May. The agency has said that if relisting is ever warranted, it would make prompt use of the ESA’s emergency listing provisions.
Conservation groups have filed a notice with the USFWS stating their intent to file a lawsuit seeking to force the agency to extend the monitoring program in Idaho and Montana.
The Center for Biological Diversity and four other organizations — the Western Watersheds Project, Friends of the Clearwater, Cascadia Wildlands and WildWest Institute — claim both states “have underestimated the impacts and risks of aggressive hunting policies for gray wolves.”
“Aggressive hunting of wolves is harming the gray wolf population in the northern Rockies. Left unchecked, the numbers will continue to decline — a sad fact for an animal that we fought so hard to bring back from the brink of extinction,” Andrea Santarsiere, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service clearly needs to continue to keep an eye on this situation.”
This past season, hunters in Montana killed 136 wolves and trappers killed another 73.
The total documented wolf mortality hit 276 in 2015, down from 308 the previous year. These numbers include all documented wolf deaths, including those from vehicles, poaching and disease. There were 39 wolves killed in response to depredation issues, the lowest total in a decade and 18 fewer than last year. Twelve wolves were killed under Senate Bill 200 authority, which allows landowners to kill wolves threatening livestock or pets.
“Although this year marks the end of the five-year post-delisting oversight by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wolf management will continue as it has, under the guidance of Montana’s Wolf Management Plan,” said Ken McDonald, FWP wildlife bureau chief. “In future years, FWP may be adjusting how it monitors and reports on wolf numbers, but doesn’t anticipate any significant changes in how wolves are managed.”
In the mid 1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, the agency released 66 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Wolves in Northwest Montana arrived through natural migration from Canada. FWP began monitoring the wolf population and managing livestock conflicts in 2004. After several court challenges, wolves were delisted in 2011.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.