Wolf stands in snow

Gray wolf.

What a difference a year makes.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year removed wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered-species list, some predicted the wholesale slaughter of wolves in these states.

We had faith in the state wildlife professionals who would manage wolves, and in the commitment of the state’s leadership to sustain the wolf’s amazing recovery.

Newly released population estimates validate that faith. They indicate that state assumption of full management responsibility for wolves, including regulated hunting and trapping seasons, will continue to ensure a healthy and robust wolf population for many years to come.

The minimum population estimate in our 2011 report shows that the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population contains more than 1,774 adult wolves and more than 109 breeding pairs. Most of the suitable habitat is now occupied and likely at or above long-term carrying capacity. This population has exceeded recovery goals for 10 consecutive years.

Although population decreases are expected in Montana and Idaho in the long term as states pursue their population management objectives, we expect that these reductions will be measured and carefully managed to ensure populations are maintained well above recovery levels. This first year demonstrates the credible and professional job the states have done, and the careful decision-making that has gone into their management strategies.

The states’ management approach, which includes cooperative efforts of federal, state, and tribal agencies, conservation groups, private citizens, ranchers, sportsmen, and outfitters, has been consistent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s expectations.

There is no reason to believe that Montana and Idaho will reduce their population to the minimum management target of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves per state. Wolves are a resilient and resourceful species, and we’ve worked with the states to ensure that they retain sufficient protections within their core habitat. They’ve demonstrated a remarkable ability to reproduce and thrive in this habitat despite years of high mortality rates.

This new information also shows that state regulated hunting and trapping has been conducted and will continue to be conducted in a responsible manner. Hunters have played a key role for decades in helping to manage and sustain dozens of game populations in North America, and they have begun to do the same for wolves.

Regulated hunting is a valuable tool for reducing conflicts with humans, combined with efforts by Wildlife Services to assist ranchers by removing those wolves found to be predating on livestock. The reduction of these conflicts is another crucial element in our ability to sustain the wolf’s recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

This summer, we intend to make a final decision on whether wolves in Wyoming are recovered and secure, now that Wyoming has acted to amend its wolf management plan and state law to provide additional protections for wolves. We are proud of our role in wolf recovery, and that the Endangered Species Act made this possible. Now, this report gives us reason to be proud of our state agency partners, and confident that this iconic species is in good hands.

Dan Ashe is director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

in Washington, D.C.