Numbers released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service today show that the overall wolf population in the Northern Rockies declined slightly in 2010 from where it was at the end of 2009, but is at roughly the same number of packs, remains biologically recovered and may be leveling off.
Perhaps the news will calm a region roiling with wolf fever — perhaps not.
In the federal agency’s 2010 annual report, it stated that there were a minimum of 1,651 wolves in 244 packs and 111 breeding pairs in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon, and a small part of north-central Utah as of Dec. 31, 2010.
In 2009, there were at least 1,733 wolves in 242 packs and 115 breeding pairs.
“The apparent decline was solely due to a lower minimum population estimate in Idaho,” the Service reported.
There, where hunters were able to kill 188 in late 2009 and early 2010, the population declined 20 percent. The Service suspects “the difference in wolf numbers in Idaho was partly due to loss of radio-collared wolves and reduced monitoring effort in the inaccessible rugged forested mountainous terrain in central Idaho wilderness areas.”
In Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon, the numbers “increased slightly (~9 percent) from 2009,” the Service says.
That masks a large jump in percentage for Washington (a 200-plus percent increase) and Oregon (50 percent), though actual numbers in both are fractions of other states in the recovery area.
Ed Bangs, Fish & Wildlife’s wolf recovery coordinator, has been suggesting to me that the Northern Rockies population is about as big as it’s going to get if not decline because the best habitat has already been occupied. The report states:
“Data collected in 2010 about wolf distribution, numbers, packs, and breeding pairs; livestock depredation, compensation, and wolf control; and apparent declines in prey populations in the most remote areas in the NRM DPS that have the lowest rate of livestock conflict and the longest history of pack persistence (YNP and central Idaho Wilderness), suggest the NRM DPS wolf population may be stabilizing or even starting a slow decline to some as yet undetermined lower equilibrium based on natural carrying capacity in suitable habitat and human social tolerance.”
It’s the 12th annual report USFWS has posted — a collaboration with several Indian nations, state fish and wildlife agencies and the National Park Service — and this one gives the most details yet about Washington and Oregon’s wolf packs (see below).
It also details:
Across the region, while depredation payments remained at the same level as 2009 — confirmed cattle losses were basically the same (199 to 193) — sheep and dog losses were “much lower” compared to 2009 (249 and two to 749 and 24).
It reports that 12 fewer wolves had to be “controlled” than the previous year (260 vs. 272).
“In 2010 Montana, removed 141 wolves by agency control; Idaho removed 78 by agency control and another 48 by public hunting; and in Wyoming, 40 wolves were removed by agency control. No wolves were removed by agency control in Oregon or Washington. A lone depredating wolf was killed by agency control in Utah,” the Service says.
The report states that as of Dec. 31, 2010, there were:
374 wolves in the Northwest Montana Recovery Area (319 in 2009)
501 in the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area (455 in 2009)
739 in the Central Idaho Recovery Area (913 in 2009)
Broken down by state in the overall recovery zone, there were an estimated minimum of:
566 wolves in Montana (524 in 2009)
343 in Wyoming (320 in 2009)
705 in Idaho (843 in 2009)
16 in Eastern Washington (five in 2009)
21 in Eastern Oregon (14 in2009)
Outside the region, there is only one pack, the Lookout Pack near Twisp, Wash., and the Service reports it didn’t raise pups in 2010. Its radio-collared alpha female went missing in May.
Here’s more from the report specific to Washington and Oregon:
Washington Pack Summaries
Inside Northern Rocky Mountain DPS
Northeast Washington – Wolves continue to re-colonize northeast Washington from northwest Idaho and southeast British Columbia (Table 7). During 2010 Washington Department of Wildlife (WDFW) confirmed 1 new pack, bringing the number of packs in eastern Washington from the Northwest Montana Recovery area/British Columbia to 2. A third pack known as Cutoff Peak, divides its time between Idaho, British Columbia, and Washington. Based on information from summer monitoring, Cutoff Peak probably dens in northern Idaho. The 2 confirmed Washington packs in the NRM DPS (Diamond and Salmo) contained a total of 16 wolves at the end of 2010.
Diamond Pack – In late July 2009 the breeding male of the Diamond Pack was captured and radio-collared (WA-398M) making this the second confirmed Washington pack since the 1930s. During summer 2010 WA DOW caught and marked four yearling wolves (WA-376F, WA-378M, WA-380F, WA-382F) and caught and released a pup of the year. WDFW documented 6 pups on several occasions during the summer and counted 12 wolves in this pack at the end of the year making this pack a breeding pair. Approximately 24% of Diamond pack‟s territory is in Idaho.
Salmo Pack – In late August 2010, WDFW caught and collared a 50-lb pup of the year with a standard VHF collar. This is a newly documented pack that is spending most of their time in far northern Washington with occasional forays into British Columbia. WDFW observed four adult-sized animals on several occasions this winter. It is unknown whether this pack dens in Washington. Because only 1 pup was confirmed, the pack was not considered a breeding pair in 2010.
Southeast Washington – Sightings of wolves and their sign have been reported in the Mill Creek watershed area of southeast Washington and the adjacent portion of northeast Oregon, consistently since 2008. There were multiple credible reports of three wolves using this area during 2010. WDFW considers this a probable pack which likely re-colonized SE Washington/NE Oregon from the Central Idaho Recovery Area.
Outside Northern Rocky Mountains DPS
Lookout Pack – In July 2008 a breeding male and female were captured and radio-collared near Twisp, WA, representing the first confirmed wolf pack in Washington since the 1930s . Genetic testing indicated the breeding male might have originated from a coastal/southern British Columbia and the breeding female came from northern British Columbia/Alberta border or wolves reintroduced into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park from that area of Canada. They were the first confirmed wolf pack in Washington since the 1930s. The pair produced 6 pups in summer 2008 and 4 in 2009. During spring 2010, the female was observed to be pregnant and was using a den. Several weeks after the estimated date of parturition her signal was lost and she was no longer observed in the vicinity of the den. The pack did not use any of its previous rendezvous sites and the radio-collared male ranged widely. Based on tracks and observations he appeared to be alone most of the summer. At the end of calendar year 2010, observations by WDFW indicate there are still 2-3 wolves occupying Lookout pack‟s territory.
Oregon Pack Summaries
Inside Northern Rocky Mountain DPS
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ORFW) confirmed 2 breeding pairs of wolves in 2010. The Imnaha pack (15 miles east of Joseph, OR) produced a minimum of 6 pups in 2010. In February, 2010 three radio collars were deployed within the pack including a GPS collar. The pack was involved in livestock depredations from May through December and 8 calves confirmed killed in 2010. One member of the pack dispersed in December and the Imnaha Pack had 15 members at year-end; 6 of them pups.
Wolves also continue to inhabit the Wenaha Unit of northeast OR (20 mi west of Troy, OR). In August 2010 a Wenaha pack member was radio-collared by ODFW. In September, the newly collared wolf was found shot, leaving the pack again without a radio-collared member. A minimum of 3 pups was confirmed in 2010 and the minimum estimate for the Wenaha pack is 6 wolves. Both confirmed OR packs are within the NRM DPS that was delisted from the ESA in 2009 but relisted in August 2010.
The spread of wolves into Eastern Washington and Oregon is just one more piece of evidence that Canis lupus is recovered in the region.
And with them has come wolf angst, notably a anti-wolf march in La Grande yesterday by an estimated 60 protesters and word that another may descend on Salem, point-counterpoint vitriol wherever wolf or even tangentially-wolf-related articles appear online, opinion pieces such as “Predators at the door” in the Wenatchee World yesterday, and introduction of numerous wolf-related bills in the legislatures of the Beaver and Evergreen States — including one in Washington that would require state senators and representatives to sign off on WDFW’s management plan before the Fish & Wildlife Commission approved it.
Meanwhile, Carter Niemeyer, a retired federal biologist who worked extensively on wolf issues in Montana and Idaho in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s for USFWS and USDA Wildlife Services, is on a slide and speaking tour to publicize his self-published book, Wolfer. Last night before a crowd of 40 to 45 in Olympia, he countered some of the myths about wolves and where those that were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s came from. He also said that he agrees with Bangs that it’s time to move on, time for the animals to be delisted — though not legislatively — and time for the states where populations are recovered to manage them on their own.
Currently, wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, put back there following a federal judge’s ruling last August that wolves can’t be delisted in parts of their Northern Rockies range but not others. Since then, Congressmen have introduced numerous bills to delist them.
In its annual report, the Service reminds readers, “Minimum recovery goals (an equitably distributed wolf population that contained at least 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs in Montana, in Idaho, and in Wyoming for at least three successive years) have been exceeded in the Northern Rocky Mountains Distinct Population Segment every year since 2002.”
“By every biological measure the NRM DPS wolf population is fully recovered,” writes the USFWS. “Resident packs appear to saturate suitable habitat in the core recovery areas and dispersing wolves routinely travel between them and Canada and successfully breed. Consequently, genetic diversity in the NRM DPS is very high and will almost certainly be maintained solely by natural dispersal at a population size less than half of current levels. The three subpopulations function as a single large NRM DPS meta-population. In addition, the NRM DPS is simply a 400-mile southern extension of a vast western Canadian wolf population that by itself contains over 12,000 wolves. Lone dispersing wolves continue to routinely travel beyond the core recovery areas and a few even go outside the NRM DPS.”