A new report has identified 26,000 square miles of unoccupied wolf habitat in Wyoming, including large expanses of the Wyoming and Wind River ranges and all of the Bighorn and Medicine Bow mountains.
The analysis, headed by the Center for Biological Diversity, is a synthesis of more than two dozen research papers that have attempted to label potential wolf habitat. Today, south of the Canadian border, gray wolves are found on only about a tenth of their historic range.
“It shows that the current wolf population of 5,400 could be nearly doubled if federal protections were retained and recovery efforts began to restore wolves to some of the places they once called home,” the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a statement.
Factors included in author Amaroq Weiss’ habitat model include human population density, prey density, land use and ownership, livestock density, prey availability and other measures of what’s necessary and suitable for a large far-ranging carnivore.
The report identified 359,000 square miles of vacant gray wolf habitat spread across 19 states. Colorado, New England, California and the Pacific Northwest account for the largest chunks of habitat where wolves have been extirpated.
Wyoming’s former management plan puts a focus on retaining wolves in the state’s northwest corner. Prior to being stripped of control by recent court ruling, Wyoming managers had purposefully attempted to eliminate the large carnivores from everywhere except the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Weiss, the Center for Biological Diversity’s West Coast wolf organizer, explained the distinction between the state’s definition of wolf habitat and what’s modeled in her report.
“The report analyzes 27 different peer-reviewed papers,” Weiss said. “It’s not our original research.
“I’m assuming that people that did those research papers were looking at a broader set of parameters than the managers on the ground,” she said.
The boundaries of Wyoming’s trophy game area — where wolves are protected — were set to exclude areas that have potential for chronic conflicts with livestock.
Weiss said that where livestock roam is one of many components to the wolf habitat equation.
“It is one of many considerations,” she said. “That’s a people factor.
“Across the West there are many ranchers that are wanting to share the land with native predators,” Weiss said. “Ranchers are wanting to be certified as predator-friendly because they understand that the public is in favor of having them on the landscape.”
Ken Mills, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf program biologist, said he doesn’t anticipate that wolves will disperse any differently now that they are not being hunted legally anywhere in the Equality State.
“Wolves are going to disperse, and they’re going to continue to find ways to move around,” Mills said in an interview last week. “They’re going to find their way to the Bighorns.”
Because wolves are now protected, Mills said he anticipates that dispersing animals will persist for longer in now unoccupied places, such as the Bighorns, and that they will begin to kill livestock and then have to be killed.
“The predator zone is designed to limit the establishment and the damage that usually come from wolves establishing territories,” he said. “And it’s worked.”