The numbers suggest that Wyoming’s wolves smartened up in the second season since hunting returned to the landscape, learning a wariness of people that has prevented them from being shot.
Hunters managed to kill 12 wolves in the first 36 hours of the 2017 fall season, the first state-sanctioned hunt in four years owing to an Endangered Species Act-based jurisdiction fight with the courts and federal government.
But this year, through over seven weeks of hunting, only 19 members of the large canine species have been reported killed in regions where Wyoming manages wolves for persistence. In most of the state, the so-called “predator zone,” where 27 wolves have been killed in 2018, the regulations are geared toward eradicating the species that was reintroduced to the Yellowstone region 23 years ago.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf biologist Ken Mills’ take is that mere chance cannot explain the disparity between the rate at which animals were killed in 2017 and this year’s rate of harvest.
“Wolves are likely responding behaviorally to hunting pressure,” Mills said, “and are adapting to avoid human hunters.”
One notable difference between the 2017 and 2018 hunts is that this year’s season began one month earlier, on Sept. 1. Mills surmises that the earlier hunting start date didn’t have a ton of effect partly because September was a warm month and because there were fewer hunters in the field pursuing other species.
The goal of the earlier start was to increase the pressure on wolves, part of Wyoming’s ongoing effort to drive down the population in the “trophy game area. ” The state sought a year ago to cut its wolf population by nearly a quarter, but only a 16 percent reduction was accomplished. As a result, Game and Fish dialed up the hunting pressure, allowing a record 58 wolves to be targeted this fall.
Wyoming also held hunts in 2012 and 2013, prior to a judge’s decision that revoked its authority.
Nov. 1 will mark the halfway point of this year’s hunt, but so far just a third of the quota has been achieved.
Steady license sales suggest sagging participation is not the explanation for the dip in hunter success. The 2017 hunt attracted 2,527 people to buy a license, and so far this year the count is at 2,390 over-the-counter tags sold — with two months to go.
As winter weather moves in and snow fills the valleys, the likelihood is that more wolves will begin to fall to hunters’ bullets.
“Historically, October, the first couple weeks during the elk season, has had the highest rates,” Mills said. “Then it’s slow in November … and picks up in December.”
The season closes Dec. 31. The exception is in the predator zone, seasonally delineated on its north end by Highway 22, which allows hunting all year without limit or rules.
Six wolves have been killed so far in the Jackson Hole area. None of the seven hunt areas surrounding the valley has reached its quota or shut down.