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Counting wolves expensive; there must be a better way

This gray wolf pup is from the Calder Mountain pack along the Montana-Idaho border. Associated Press
 (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
This gray wolf pup is from the Calder Mountain pack along the Montana-Idaho border. Associated Press (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

ENDANGERED SPECIES -- Under the endangered species regulations governing gray wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, states must monitor wolf numbers and file annual status reports on wolf populations and packs.

  • See stories about the latest wolf status reports for six states, including Idaho, Montana and Washington.

Federal authorities review the reports to ensure wolves are being properly managed above standards that could trigger relisting as an endangered species. 

Monitoring and reporting wolf status an expensive task that's been funded mostly by the federal government.  But as the federal funding dries up, state's are looking at how to bring monitoring into fiscal reality.

Researchers from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the University of Montana on Friday released preliminary results of a new technique for estimating wolf numbers to produce a less expensive and more accurate population assessment.

The typical method used to document the state's wolf population focuses on ground and aerial track counts, visual observations, den and rendezvous confirmation and radio collaring to count individual wolves as required by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Montana's new approach: From 2007 through 2012, a team of 11 researchers to determine the number of gray wolves in Montana by estimating the:

  1. Areas occupied by wolves in packs;
  2. Number of wolf packs by dividing the occupied area by average territory size; and
  3. Numbers of wolves by multiplying the number of estimated packs by average annual pack size.

For instance, population modeling for Montana's wolves in 2012—where actual counts verified a minimum of 625 wolves and 147 packs—predicted that 804 wolves and 165 packs inhabited the state. Similar estimates are not yet available for 2013.

The typical method used by states produces a minimum number of wolves that can be verified, leaving biologists to say they believe there are actually more wolves in the field.  The new Montana method seeks to give a more accurate number.

"This new approach is not only good science, it's a practical way for Montana to obtain a more accurate range of wolf numbers that likely inhabit the state," said Justin Gude, FWP's, chief of research for the wildlife division in Helena

Montana wolf population estimates were derived for the years 2007 through 2012 via a mix of rigorous statistical evaluations; wolf observations reported by recreational hunters during the annual hunter-harvest surveys; and Montana's annual wolf counts.

Results generally estimate a Montana wolf population 25-35 percent higher than the verified minimum counts submitted over the six-year period.

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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