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Wolf population thriving since reintroduction

Number of livestock deaths isn't going up, {officials say}

By MIKE STARK
Of The Gazette Staff

Like them or not, gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are thriving.

Since last winter, their numbers have grown by more than 20 percent, according to estimates released this week.

Federal and state officials now figure that at least 1,229 wolves in 158 packs are scattered across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the highest estimate in the 11 years since Canis lupus was reintroduced to the region.

Much of the recent growth has been in central Idaho and Wyoming, including in Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone population dipped by about 30 percent in 2005 after a canine disease swept through, killing most of that year's pups. More pups have survived this year, and the population has bounced back from 118 last year to 143, which is still fewer than the 171 in 2004.

In Montana, the wolf population has grown by 6 to 7 percent this year, primarily in the northwest portion of the state.

Carolyn Sime, the lead wolf coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the growth of wolf packs elsewhere in Montana - including those just outside Yellowstone - probably remained flat this year because of a ripple effect from the decline inside the park last year.

The wolf population around places such as the Beartooth Plateau tends to expand as wolves leave Yellowstone in search of new territory. As the Yellowstone population rebounds, wolf packs outside the park should grow, too.

"In the next year and a half or two years we could see a pulse in Montana," Sime said.

The midyear estimate is merely a snapshot of the official wolf count, which happens each winter when it's easier to spot wolves from the air as they're contrasted against the snow.

"It is important to note this estimate is very rough and a lot can change because of wolf mortality during the fall," Ed Bangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery coordinator, wrote about the latest numbers.

Still, the numbers are more evidence that the wolves' presence in the three states, while controversial, is robust and growing.

In Idaho, the number of wolves grew from 512 at the end of 2005 to 650 this summer. In Montana, the number grew from 256 to 270, and in Wyoming the increase was from 252 to 309.

The numbers have steadily risen since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.

Sime said it doesn't appear that the increase in the number of wolves has led to a significant increase in the number of livestock killed or injured.

The glaring exception is the 100-plus sheep that were killed in Garfield and McCone counties earlier this year by an animal, still uncaught, that was either a wolf or a wolf hybrid.

In 2005, 97 cows, 244 sheep, 11 dogs and two horses were confirmed killed by wolves. In response, wildlife officials killed 103 wolves.

The push continues to get wolves off the list of endangered species.

For more than six years, there have been more than 30 breeding pairs across the three states, a key level for determining whether the population has recovered.

Though the population is large enough and widespread enough, delisting has become snagged in long-running political and legal battles.

The states of Montana and Idaho have taken over much of the handling of wolves in those states because each has a management plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wyoming's plan, which would allow some wolves to be subject to unregulated killing, has not been approved and has been the subject of lawsuits and disagreement for years.

As that fight continues, state officials in Idaho and Montana have asked the federal government to consider delisting wolves in those two states. So far, there's been no formal movement on that request.

Published on Thursday, September 28, 2006.
Last modified on 9/28/2006 at 12:16 am