At least 377 wolves were removed from the Montana population during the past 14 months by hunters, trappers, the federal government, landowners and others.
Hunters took out 128 wolves, trappers caught 97, Wildlife Services — part of the federal Department of Agriculture — removed 113 “problem” wolves for depredation and ranchers killed seven that preyed on livestock. Another 32 wolves died last year from a variety of causes, including illegal kills, malnutrition and being hit by a vehicle.
Some argue that drops the known, minimal population from 653 wolves in Montana to about 276. However, factoring in that the state has 39 known breeding packs, which could average about five pups per litter, the known population level could hover around 471.
But that doesn’t necessarily translate to the number of wolves on the landscape in Montana, since not all of the wolves that were removed may have been among those in the “known” minimal population, according to Ron Aasheim with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“When talking about removing wolves through hunting and depredation harvest, you can’t just do simple math,” Aasheim said. “It’s more of a dynamic system.”
In 2012, FWP officials said they were aiming for a known minimum population of about 425 wolves after the hunting season. The idea is that the number would balance assurances of their continuing presence on the landscape while limiting both livestock depredation and negative impacts on big game population numbers.
The 36 percent jump in harvest this year — from 121 in the 2011/2012 season to 225 this year by hunters and trappers — pleased FWP managers. Trapping wasn’t allowed prior to this year; wolf hunting was prohibited by a lawsuit in 2010 and hunters removed 72 in 2009.
The expanded hunting season ran 181 days this year, beginning on Sept. 1, 2012. The 76-day trapping season opened Dec. 15, 2012. Both closed on Feb. 28.
“The overall harvest of 225 wolves this season is higher than last year and reflects the more liberal harvest opportunities that were added for 2012,” said Jeff Hagener, FWP director in Helena. “The effectiveness of hunters and now trappers together continues to grow.”
FWP models indicated that with more than 650 known wolves at the end of 2011, nearly 400 wolves would need to be harvested to reduce the minimum population below 500.
But Kim Bean with Wolves of the Rockies said the population estimates are unreliable and inaccurate, and that removing 377 wolves from the landscape may have a significant impact — or it may not.
“When they talk minimum wolf counts what they are doing is saying there has to be more even though they haven’t seen them, but they’re not studying them so they will go with the average they think are here,” Bean said. “What if there are less? What if there are more? I personally think the actual number is lower, but what if there are more? We need to know how many wolves are out there and you can’t do that with five wolf specialists spread out over 147,000 square miles.”
Yet Hagener believes that the wolf population remains robust, even between the harvest by hunters and trappers and those killed for depredation on livestock and pets.
“We need to achieve a reduction,” Hagener said. “Montana has made room for wolves, we are long past the period of recovering wolves, and we are committed to managing for a recovered population. We also need to remember it is FWP’s responsibility to manage with an eye to how all of our special wild resources affect each other and address issues such as public tolerance, including that of landowners. That is what we continually hear the public asking us to do.”
Hagener added that he expects wolf harvest numbers to increase with a new law recently signed by Gov. Steve Bullock that allows hunters to buy up to three wolf licenses and lowered the non-resident license fee from $350 to $50. Hunters also will be allowed to use electronic calls and can use their license 24 hours after the purchase, instead of waiting for five days.
During the six-week general big game hunting season, 84 wolves were taken, with all but 20 being harvested by hunters who were in the field focusing on other species. The other 141 were harvested by trappers and hunters specifically targeting wolves.
Hunters bought 18,642 wolf hunting licenses during the past season, including 246 by nonresidents who only managed to take three wolves. About half of the harvest was on public lands, with the top three counties being Lincoln with 38, Park with 24 and Missoula with 22.
About 1,500 of the 2,500 people who took wolf trapping certification classes actually purchased trapping licenses.
Wildlife managers are compiling Montana’s 2012 wolf population data, with the annual wolf report expected to be completed in late March. Montana’s wolf advisory council, originally created in 2006 to aid in developing Montana’s Wolf Management Plan, will reconvene at that time to discuss the wide range of interests and the evolving management activities.