Biologists in charge of Canis lupus in Wyoming assessed the fewest wolves since hunting began seven years ago, and in response they are rolling back quotas in almost all areas where the species is carefully managed.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s proposed wolf hunting season for 2019 targets a total of 33 animals, down over 40% from the 58 wolves that were targeted in the state’s trophy-game area one year ago. The goal of the 2019 wolf season remains the same: to strive for 160 wolves in the region Wyoming allows wolves to persist in. In 85% of the Equality State, the large canines continue to be classified as predators that can be killed indiscriminately.
“We’re actually proposing a population increase of eight wolves,” said large carnivore biologist Ken Mills, who heads Game and Fish’s wolf program.
The state agency will hold a public meeting about its wolf hunting season at 6 p.m. Thursday at Teton County Library.
Jackson Hole is an area of Wyoming that saw some dramatic swings in wolf population dynamics over the last two years. A case in point is the Gros Ventre River drainage, which went from being called the most wolf-dense landscape in Wyoming outside Yellowstone National Park in 2017 to holding just a handful of animals last winter. In step with the declines, Mills and his colleagues opted to dial back the hunting pressure in an expansive area that encompasses the Gros Ventre and spills into the Upper Green River drainage. The quota under the proposed regulations the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is scheduled to review July 18 and 19 in Rock Springs is being shaved to seven wolves, down from 15 a year ago.
A boundary change that would combine two Teton County hunt zones is designed to give hunters more flexibility, Mills said. An area that runs through the Teton Wilderness will be joined with a zone on the west slope of the Tetons, the latter of which has never been the site of a registered wolf kill. In the two zones combined, a total of three wolves could be hunted.
Mills also pulled back the quotas in other Jackson Hole hunting zones. In area 10, which is southeast of Jackson and covers areas such as Horse Creek and the Gros Ventre Wilderness, the cap on hunter kills was slashed from five animals to two.
Wolf hunting zone 12, which extends south from Highway 22 into the Snake River and Wyoming ranges, holds steady at a maximum of two wolves that can be killed. This area reverts to a free-fire predator zone where wolves can be killed without rules for much of the year.
East of Togwotee Pass, a change would extend the wolf hunting season deep into the winter. Wyoming wolf hunting seasons have always rolled to a close in conjunction with the calendar year, but there’s a proposal to allow hunters to keep at it deep into the winter in zone 13, located south of Dubois in the Wind River Range. The reasoning is to discourage wolves from localizing in choice winter range used by the Whiskey Mountain Bighorn Sheep Herd, which has struggled to recover from past bouts of pneumonia. Notably, there has never been a confirmed instance of a wolf killing a Whiskey Mountain sheep.
Game and Fish had internal discussions last year about lowering the targeted overall wolf population closer to the basement numbers the federal government agreed to when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ceded management to the state: 100 animals and 10 breeding pairs. Aiming for 160 wolves gives Mills 95% confidence that wolves won’t drop below the breeding pair threshold.
Wolves had a rough go of it over the last year. Numbers fell to 152 animals where Wyoming has control, down 23% due to disease outbreaks, hunting, lethal conflicts and a slow reproductive year.
“I can tell you, this year we were adamant we were staying at 160,” Mills said. “Last year showed why we’ve been making that decision all along — because some years are going to be low.”