A bump upward in Wyoming’s wolf population means the number of animals that will be targeted in the coming hunting season is climbing, trends that carry over to Jackson Hole.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department released its wolf-hunting proposal for the 2020 season this week. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the agency has increased its quota by 50%, from 34 to 51 wolves.
That’s primarily a result of wolf numbers rising to 175 in 27 packs in the “trophy game area,” where the state seeks to keep wolves on the landscape. (In the remaining 85% of Wyoming, the “predator zone,” Canis lupus can be killed without limit.)
“The long story short is that our non-hunting human-caused mortality rate was about half of what we anticipated,” Wyoming Game and Fish wolf biologist Ken Mills said. “That’s good. It means we weren’t killing wolves from causes like lethal control. And that’s really, I think, the main reason why the population increased.”
At the end of 2018, there were 152 wolves counted in the trophy game area in the state’s northwest corner, the only part of Wyoming where Game and Fish has jurisdiction over wolves.
That year-end count rose by 23 wolves as the calendar turned this year, which means the population exceeded the 160-wolf benchmark that Wyoming’s wolf management plan targets to make sure the state achieves Endangered Species Act delisting agreements.
It’s a data-driven process, Mills said, that he uses to set the wolf hunting seasons for Wyoming.
“Agencies don’t manage wolves the way we’ve committed to managing wolves,” he said. “We’ve committed to managing wolves in a way that’s much more specific and precise than other agencies.”
Wolf range is more widespread in Montana and Idaho, and those states’ larger populations are more buffered from basement levels required by the federal government.
Game and Fish is also planning on pushing back the onset of wolf hunting to Sept. 15 to cut down on the number of pups killed.
In the past two years the season has started Sept. 1, when first-year wolves are typically 4 1/2 months old and about the size of a coyote. Because of their naivety and high numbers, pups have comprised about 50% of the harvest in September and 40% in October.
Surveying hunters following last season, Mills heard from half a dozen people who were eager to delay the hunt until later in the fall. Until 2018 it began in October.
“I took that as a positive thing,” Mills said, “that there is a subset of hunters who are really thinking about the seasons and are thinking about wolves as a valuable trophy.”
The Sept. 15 start time was a compromise, he said, and was selected to align with the onset of big game rifle seasons.
Because of COVID-19, Game and Fish has for now put a stop to its normal public meetings. In lieu of a gathering, Mills posted a 16-minute video presentation of his hunting season proposal on WGFD.wyo.gov. Click on “regulations,” and then “Chapter 47, gray wolf hunting seasons.” There’s also a portal to submit comments on the same web page.
Wolf numbers in Game and Fish’s Jackson Region went up, and hunting quotas in turn went up.
The quota in the Gros Ventre and Leidy highlands area — popular for wolf hunting — increased from seven to 10.
In unit 10, hugged between the Gros Ventre Range crest and the Hoback River, hunters’ cap on wolves went from two to six.
On the west slope of the Tetons and in the Teton Wilderness, which are jointly managed, the quota rose from three to six.
In unit five, located along Togwotee Pass and north of Dubois, the proposed wolf quota is rising from one to four.
Interest in wolf hunting fell off some last year, with license sales dropping 29% between 2018 and 2019. Hunter success rates, however, held about steady, at around 2%, Mills said.