BILLINGS, Mont. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the number of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies has increased to more than 900 since last year, but a top wolf recovery official says the numbers may be near the maximum the region can sustain.
The agency attributed the increasing numbers primarily to Idaho’s growing wolf population. The number in Montana is up from 2004 but below 2003, and it is down in Wyoming, where illness and competition for food and territory in Yellowstone National Park seem to have hit the population hard, according to the agency’s midyear estimate.
Overall, the population is doing well and has grown since last December, when an estimated 835 wolves roamed the region, Ed Bangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s wolf recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont., said.
“But people who think wolves are just going to keep going, that’s not true,” Bangs said. “We’re probably approaching as many wolves as we can handle in these conditions and times.”
According to the midyear estimates, used by wildlife officials to gauge where monitoring efforts need to be focused, there were 912 wolves in the three-state region – 166 in Montana, 221 in Wyoming and 525 in Idaho, which Bangs said offers by far the most and best wolf habitat in the region.
At the end of 2004, there were an estimated 153 wolves in Montana, 260 in Wyoming and 422 in Idaho, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Steve Nadeau, statewide large carnivore program coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said parts of that state offer places where wolves could still expand. The central part of the state, though, “seems to be pretty saturated with wolves,” he said.
This year, he said, Idaho saw a surge in livestock killed by wolves, though he had no immediate tally. As wolves expand their territory, he said, this is to be expected.
“We anticipate an increase in headaches as the population continues to increase,” Nadeau said. “Currently, the situation is manageable.”
Disease has taken a toll on wolves in parts of Montana and Wyoming. In southern Montana, near Yellowstone, mange has been found in six wolf packs that have encountered significant losses, according to the agency report. Mange can lead to excessive scratching and hair loss that leaves wolves more vulnerable to infection and the elements, said Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Parvo virus, which can cause extreme diarrhea and dehydration and can kill more vulnerable animals, like pups, is suspected in cases in Yellowstone, Bangs said. Fish and Wildlife estimates that the park’s population has dropped from 171 last year to 118, with competition for food and territory factoring in, he said.
“Everyone kind of knew it. The park is full of wolves,” he said, adding that four packs “kind of disappeared.”
In Wyoming outside of Yellowstone, wildlife officials wiped out three packs for killing livestock, Bangs said. Excluding the park, his agency estimated 102 wolves in Wyoming, up from 89 last year.
Wildlife officials in Montana are investigating possible new packs, particularly in the western part of the state, Sime said.
Gray wolves were reintroduced to the region a decade ago and, in 2002, met the government’s recovery targets. Still, the wolves remain federally protected – though, in parts of Montana and Idaho, ranchers now have greater latitude in protecting livestock from predatory wolves – because Wyoming hasn’t submitted a management plan deemed acceptable by the federal agency, a necessary step before delisting can be proposed.
Bangs said he doubts there will be 1,000 wolves in the region when an official count is taken at year’s end – September tends to be a big month for livestock predation, which often leads to problem wolves being killed. There also tends to be a spike in illegal wolf kills during the fall, when hunters are in the field.