At least 1,706 gray wolves in 242 packs and 115 breeding pairs were roaming the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at the end of 2009, according to reports compiled by the states and recently released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The reintroduced predators increased their numbers and distribution despite the 2009 opening of the first fair-chase hunting seasons authorized in Idaho and Montana.
About 1,645 wolves were documented in the Northern Rockies at the end of 2008, with about 95 breeding pairs.
The 4 percent overall growth rate was the lowest since the first Canadian gray wolves were released in Yellowstone Park and Idaho in 1995-1996.
But state wildlife managers say wolf populations need to be reduced.
Citing data recently compiled from winter big-game surveys, Idaho Fish and Game Department Director Cal Groen called for using trapping or other methods to reduce wolf numbers in a couple of areas where they were contributing to the decimation of elk herds.
Elk in the Lolo Zone have declined 57 percent since 2006, he said. Hunters were not able to kill their quota of wolves in the rugged country.
Idaho has the biggest concentration of wolves – a minimum of 843 compared with 524 in Montana and 320 in Wyoming.
Some animal protection groups continue to vigorously oppose the wolf’s removal from Endangered Species protections in Idaho and Montana last year. A court challenge is pending.
However, Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who’s led the wildly successful wolf recovery effort since 1988, said scientists have proved that Northern Rockies wolves are fully recovered “by every biological measure.”
Federal agencies spent $3.8 million for wolf management in 2009 while private and state agencies paid $457,785 in compensation for wolf-damage to livestock.
The spending is predicted to increase this year, FWS officials said.
Confirmed cattle losses by wolves in the Northern Rockies decreased slightly to 192 while kills of sheep and dogs increased to 721 and 24 respectively, up from 355 and 14.
Oregon and Washington, which still have Endangered Species protections for wolves, are not yet required to file statewide wolf recovery reports.
Washington has at least two breeding packs with no reported livestock depredation last year or official wolf removals, said Madonna Luers, state Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman .
Two wolves were killed by Oregon officials last year in response to private property damage. Oregon has at least two breeding packs.
Some wolf packs naturally fell apart last year and some were exterminated after they developed an incurable taste for livestock. But other wolf packs formed for a net gain of packs in the region.
The overall spread of wolves is clear, state officials say.
Montana reports minimum number of wolf packs has increased from 46 in 2005, to 60 in 2006, to 73 in 2007, to 84 in 2008 and to 101 in 2009.
The majority of Montana’s increases are in northwestern corner of the state, where white-tailed deer are likely the major prey. Elk are the prime wolf target in much of Idaho.
North Idaho wolves are increasing significantly. At least 14 packs were documented in the Idaho Panhandle in 2009, up from five last year.
Despite natural decreases in wolf numbers in Yellowstone National Park, which is largely in Wyoming, the state posted a 6 percent statewide increase in wolves and a 26 percent increase outside the park.
Wyoming was not able to open a hunting season in 2009 because of challenges to its wolf recovery plan.
Diseased and competition among packs has caused Yellowstone’s wolf population to declined precipitously 171 wolves two years ago to 56 this year, said Doug Smith, the park’s lead wolf biologist.
In early April the wolves will den. By the second week of April most of the wolf pups are born, he said.