A gray wolf (Getty Images).
Montana’s wolf population decreased by 40 in 2021, according to a new Fish Wildlife and Parks report.
The report showed the estimated wolf population in Montana at the end of 2021 was 1,141, down from 1,181 in 2020. However, in the last 10 years, wolf populations saw an estimated high of 1,256 in 2011, and a low of 1,113 in 2017, which FWP said indicates a population trend that is “very stable.”
At the end of 2021, Montana had an estimated 192 wolf packs, down from an estimated 198 in 2020. And during the last 10 years, estimated pack numbers have fluctuated from a high of 205 in 2012 to a low of 186 in 2017, according to the report.
“What the data shows us really isn’t surprising,” FWP Director Hank Worsech said in a press release announcing the new report. “Our management of wolves, including ample hunting and trapping opportunities, have kept numbers at a relatively stable level during the past several years.”
In the calendar year 2021, 160 wolves were harvested during the spring, and 139 wolves were harvested during the fall, according to the report. Additionally, 39 wolves were killed during that same time as a result of killing 96 livestock, including 67 cattle and 29 sheep.
The report pointed out that Montana’s wolf population had grown steadily since recovery efforts started in the early 1980s when less than 10 wolves were in the state. After wolf numbers approached 1,250 in 2011 and wolves were delisted, the wolf population has decreased slightly and may stabilize at about 1,160 wolves — well above federal requirements.
And the wolf population managed to remain stable in the face of a handful of bills passed during the 2021 legislative session that made it easier to hunt and trap them. The legislature passed laws to allow for the use of snares for wolf trapping, extended the wolf trapping season, and allowed for more techniques to hunt wolves, for example the use of bait and night hunting of wolves on private land. The legislature also directed FWP to reduce the wolf population to “a lower, sustainable level, but no lower than the number of wolves needed to maintain 15 breeding pairs,” according to the report. But despite the changes, harvest levels were lower than in the three previous years, according to the report.
Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, an environmental nonprofit, said he was skeptical of the numbers in the report.
“I don’t think we have the wolves they are telling us they have,” he said.
Hunting wolves near Yellowstone National Park made headlines earlier this year after hunters in Montana had killed 19 wolves from packs based in Yellowstone by Feb. 2. At that time, the total number of wolves in the park was 90. FWP ultimately closed the region that borders the park to wolf hunting on Feb. 17 after 82 wolves were harvested.
Cooke said given the leadership at FWP and the legislative priorities surrounding wolf hunting, it is time for the federal government to relist them as an endangered species.
“I have no faith in the senior leadership of FWP … and they are certainly not looking out for the wildlife enjoying communities, especially the individuals that come to Yellowstone National Park to see wolves,” he told the Daily Montanan.
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