Wolf numbers in Montana remain healthy and well above federally-mandated minimums as the fifth and final year of federal oversight of state wolf management comes to an end in May.
Montana’s annual wolf report shows a minimum wolf count of 536 wolves in 2015, which is down from 554 in 2014. Included in this number is a minimum number of breeding pairs of 32, which is down from 34 in 2014.
The difference between the overall minimum wolf counts in 2014 and 2015 is 18, well within the variability expected when counting a wide-ranging species that often occupies rough timbered country.
“It is important to remember that these are minimum counts, meaning that only wolves FWP could actually document as being on the landscape were included,” said John Vore, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Game Management Bureau Chief. “As wolf numbers have increased there is just no way we can physically count them all. We know there are more wolves out there. According to our best estimates the actual number of wolves is at least 30 percent more than the minimum count.”
In both the USFWS delisting rule and Montana state plan, Montana is required to maintain at least 150 wolves, including 15 breeding pairs. Wolves were officially delisted from the Endangered Species Act in Montana in 2011. The delisting required oversight by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for five years to ensure wolves in Montana stayed above population minimums. That oversight period ends in May.
“Wolf management in the 21st Century requires us to strike a balance socially and biologically,” said FWP Director Jeff Hagener. “We feel like we are getting closer to that as Montana’s wolf population continues to be stable, healthy and far above recovery goals.”
Montana’s approach to wolf management includes hunting, trapping and management removal of problem wolves, which provides opportunities for hunters and trappers and the flexibility to address problems with isolated instances of wolf depredation.
In 2015 the number of wolf depredations on livestock increased by 17 over the previous year to 64. This included 41 cattle, 21 sheep and two horses.
The total documented wolf mortality in 2015 was 276 wolves, down from 308 in 2014. These numbers include all documented wolf deaths, including those from vehicles, poaching and disease. Included in this number are 39 wolves killed to address depredation issues in 2015, the lowest number in a decade and 18 fewer than last year. Twelve wolves were killed under Senate Bill 200 authority, which allows landowners to kill wolves threatening livestock or pets. The total number of wolves harvested by hunters and trappers during the 2015 calendar year was 205, which were eight fewer than in the 2014 calendar year.
The recovery of the wolf in the northern Rockies remains one of the fastest endangered species comebacks on record. In the mid 1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, the USFWS released 66 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. FWP began monitoring the wolf population and managing livestock conflicts in 2004. After several court challenges wolves were successfully delisted in 2011.
The delisting of wolves in 2011 allows Montana to manage wolves as it does any other game species, which is guided by state management plans, administrative rules and laws.
“Although this year marks the end of the 5-year post-delisting oversight by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wolf management will continue as it has, under the guidance of Montana’s Wolf Management Plan,” said Ken McDonald, FWP Wildlife Bureau Chief. “In future years, FWP may be adjusting how it monitors and reports on wolf numbers, but doesn’t anticipate any significant changes in how wolves are managed.”