gray wolfEditor’s note: The article in Sightline’s latest research updates email incorrectly stated that wolves were introduced to the region “less than two years ago.” That should have read “less than two decades ago.”


Last year was the first in which sport hunters were allowed to legally shoot the gray wolves that were first reintroduced to Montana and Idaho in the 1990s. The hunts made some locals feel as if they had control over an unwelcome predator they never wanted in their fields and forests. To others, shooting a wolf is a sacrilege, one that threatens to undo decades of work to bring them back.

So how did the wolves fare?

At the end of 2009, there were 1,386 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. That number represents a 3.2 percent increase over the previous year, even after accounting for the recreational hunts. It was a much smaller rate of population growth than previous years, but the population grew nonetheless. And it was the first year that breeding pairs were officially recognized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington and Oregon.

And how did the hunters do? In 2009, they killed 72 wolves in Montana and 134 in Idaho, or about 9 percent of the overall wolf population. Central Idaho’s rugged and inaccessible terrain proved so difficult for hunters that the state extended the season into the first few months of 2010. When it closed, hunters had shot a total of 188 wolves, which was short of the state’s target of 220.

grazing sheepBut hunting wasn’t quite as lethal to wolves last year as lack of habitat and policies that protect livestock. Wolves have pretty much saturated the best habitat in high-elevation public forests in Idaho and Montana. That means they’re expanding their range and getting into more conflicts with the cattle, sheep, dogs, llamas and goats that inhabit more domesticated territory. In 2009, there were 944 confirmed domestic animal kills by wolf packs in the three core recovery areas, a jump of more than 50 percent from 2008, an increase that was mainly due to a taste for sheep.

More domestic animal kills means more wolves being killed for messing with livestock, which has been a longstanding condition of wolf reintroduction. In 2009, for instance, 240 wolves were legally killed by property owners or government agents in Idaho, Montana and Oregon to protect livestock—more than the sport hunts in those states. (In addition, as in most years, some wolves were also killed illegally, got run over by cars, or died under circumstances that couldn’t be explained.)

“They get in trouble and we end up killing them,” said US Fish and Wildlife Wolf Recovery Coordinator Ed Bangs. “The wolf population still grew last year, but they’ve filled up all the good habitat, so conflicts were a lot higher than normal and there was a lot more damage than usual. But the populations are still doing great.”

Not everyone agrees with Bangs’ interpretation.

Lawsuit Still Pending

A coalition of 13 conservation groups is challenging the decision to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species list in much of its Northwest range, which turned over management to the states (except in Wyoming, where wolves are still under federal protection.)

Although the wolves have far exceeded federal recovery goals, they still inhabit just a fraction of their historic range in Montana and Idaho:

Wolf population chart

The conservation groups argue that the wolf hunts can disrupt family bonds, leave pups to starve, and interfere with migration corridors. But their main worry is that the Rocky Mountain states – where anti-wolf sentiment runs high in some quarters – will just keep killing wolves.

The endangered species de-listing deal that the federal government arranged with Idaho and Montana would allow the feds to step in and review their programs if the wolf population in any of the states falls below 150 for three consecutive years, or if there’s a “change in state law or management objectives that would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.”

Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups, argues that by the time wolf populations dropped that precipitously, even if the federal government initiated a review it might already be too late for the wolves. She said the groups are looking for a wolf management plan that’s based on enforceable standards rather than political winds.

“The states have not yet aggressively tried to reduce down to that minimum number, but nothing in state or federal law would prevent them from getting to that,” Harbine said. “Montana is doing okay now, but what if they all of a sudden decided to shoot down all but 100 wolves? Could we go to court to stop it? Probably not.”

Habitat Constraints

Bangs, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says Montana intends to manage its wolves at a population of around 400 and Idaho at 520. If the states dramatically revise those numbers downward, he said, that would be a trigger for the feds to take action.

One big reason wolf population growth is declin
ing is the fact that they don’t coexist peacefully as they venture into less desirable territory, according to Bangs. Packs can do well in huge blocks of mountainous public forests or rangeland where there’s plenty of deer and elk and moose. They tend not to persist in more fragmented mountain territory surrounded by open agricultural lands, where there’s too much livestock and they’re too susceptible to illegal killing.

While it’s true that wolves are expanding their range into Washington and Oregon, Bangs isn’t sure how fast their numbers will increase there. There’s plenty of large wilderness areas, he said, but a lot of rock and ice. “Wolves need something to eat” said Bangs. “I think the prediction for Oregon and Washington is going to be tough sledding.”

Update: Montana is now seeking to more than double, and possibly triple, the number of wolves that can be killed in legal hunts later this year, and wolves in Idaho could face higher hunting quotas too, according to an AP story by Matt Brown.

This post is part of Sightline’s Cascadia Scorecard project, monitoring regional trends in sustainability.

Statistics come from the Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery 2009 Interagency Annual Report.

Wolf photo courtesy of Flickr user sometimesong under a Creative Commons license.

Sheep photo courtesy of Flickr user mrbendy under a Creative Commons license.