The stroke of a court clerk’s pen on Tuesday put into action a federal panel of judges’ March decision that returned jurisdiction over wolves to the state of Wyoming.
The announcement didn’t come until after the close of business hours, and had immediate implications for wolves across the vast majority of Wyoming and as near to Jackson as South Park. Where they were a federally protected “threatened” species on Monday, wolves on Tuesday could be shot on sight in a “predator zone” that begins just south of Highway 22.
“Wolves outside the trophy game management area are now considered predatory animals,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Renny MacKay said shortly after the news fell.
Rules on killing predator animals are few, and there are virtually no restrictions on tactics that can be used. Any wolf killed in the predator zone, however, must be reported to authorities within 10 days.
In most of Jackson Hole the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ order has less of an immediate effect on wolf management. Most of the valley and the larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a “trophy game” area where wolf hunting is managed, season dates are instituted and licenses must be purchased.
“For us to go forward with a hunting season in 2017,” MacKay said, “the necessary steps are drafting regulations, taking public comment, holding public meetings — and then it will all go to the commission.”
Given 2016’s record levels of wolf-livestock conflict — and approximately 115 of Wyoming’s 300-some lobos being killed in response — MacKay anticipated limited hunts in the trophy game area.
“If Wyoming does have hunting seasons,” he said, “they will be very conservative, reflecting the number of wolves removed over the last two years.”
Statewide, hunter-killed wolves in 2012 and ’13 amounted to 66 and 63 animals. Approximately half of those killed were in the predator zone and half in the trophy game area.
The most recent population estimate dates to April 2016, when a record 382 wolves were estimated in Wyoming — the highest number since reintroduction into the ecosystem in the mid-1990s. Wolves were extirpated from the Equality State in the early 20th century, unable to survive the pressure of market hunting and trapping incentivized by government eradication programs.
The 2017 monitoring report that will provide the most recent picture of the Wyoming population is due out any day, said Tyler Abbott, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s state field supervisor.
Ken Mills, a Game and Fish large carnivore biologist who will lead Wyoming’s wolf program, said he anticipates a wolf population similar to the one under his guidance 2 1/2 years ago.
“Wolf packs have been stable, and they’re pretty much the same packs that were there when we were managing them,” Mills said. “There hasn’t been a lot of change in distribution.”
Wyoming lost control of its wolf population in September 2014, when Washington, D.C., Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed with conservation groups’ argument that a lack of a mandatory population buffer in Wyoming’s plan was illegal. On March 3 federal appellate judges Judith Rogers, Nina Pillard and Janice Brown reversed that decision, determining that agreements about population buffers had “the force of law.”
Environmental attorneys elected not to seek a rehearing but were given 45 days to make a decision, delaying the swap of jurisdiction.
Wyoming congressional delegation cheered the finality of the appeal’s courts ruling, as did Gov. Matt Mead, who said in a statement he’s “delighted.”
“We recognize the need to maintain a healthy wolf population,” Mead said. “I thank former Secretaries of the Interior Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell as well as former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for their commitment to getting this done.”
Sen. John Barrasso said in a statement that the court’s mandate puts wolf management “where it should have been all along, under the control of Wyoming, not Washington.” Sen. Mike Enzi, in a statement, echoed the thought.