Friday, March 10, 2006

Northern Rockies' wolf population climbs past 1,000 animals

Associated Press

The number of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies has surpassed 1,000 a decade after wolves were reintroduced in and around Yellowstone National Park, a report released Thursday shows.

"I'm eating crow," said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena. "I never thought we'd get that high."

The report, from state and federal wildlife agencies responsible for wolf management in the three-state region, shows population growth in Montana and Idaho. But it shows an overall decline in Wyoming, where wolf numbers in Yellowstone National Park fell sharply -- mainly because so many pups died. Officials suspect disease as the culprit behind the deaths.

Outside the park, the wolf population in Wyoming grew by about 33 percent between 2004 and 2005, the report concluded.

Estimates for the end of 2005 put the Northern Rockies wolf population at 1,020, with 512 wolves in Idaho, 256 in Montana and 252 in Wyoming. Estimates also put the number of breeding pairs in the states at 71, far above the minimum 30 that help define the wolves as a recovered species.

A breeding pair consists of an adult male and female with at least two pups until year's end.

Federal wildlife officials have declared the wolves' recovery a success and made clear their intention to seek the removal of special protections for the wolves under the Endangered Species Act once all three states have management plans considered acceptable for ensuring the long-term viability of the animals.

So far, the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved plans by Montana and Idaho -- both handle most of the day-to-day wolf management duties within their borders -- but rejected Wyoming's plan, a move that is being litigated.

The wolves have met the requirements for being considered a viable, recovered population for over three years, the agency says.

Bangs said the longer wolves in the region remain protected under the act, the more potential there is for growing resentment.

"You hear rhetoric that wolves are just running amok; that's not true," he said.

If hunting were allowed -- and it could be in areas after the predators are delisted -- Bangs believes some of those hard feelings would subside. When people are allowed to hunt, he said they feel more positively about the situation, have more respect for the animals and feel they're a part of the solution.

Bangs said he doubts the wolf population will stay above 1,000 animals in the long run for a variety of reasons, including the fact there are few new areas of high-quality wolf habitat and the potential for wolves to get into trouble with livestock and people.

"The bottom line is, humans are going to decide where wolves are and where they're not," he said.

Confirmed livestock losses due to wolves dropped between 2004 and 2005, while the number of wolves killed by government agents or legally by ranchers rose, the report showed. Some farm group officials believe livestock losses were higher than what was confirmed.

New rules put in place last year allow ranchers and landowners in parts of Montana and Idaho more flexibility in dealing with problem wolves.

But Dustin Miller, regulatory affairs specialist with the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said many ranchers still incur costs due to wolves, including the hiring of additional help to tend to the livestock. He said he's heard of wolves getting accustomed to noisemakers and other forms of nonlethal control.

"From the start, ranchers didn't like the idea of introducing wolves to Idaho," he said, adding that delisting is imperative.

Amaroq Weiss, with Defenders of Wildlife, said her group has concerns about the future of the wolf and questions whether there would be adequate protections in place, once the animals were delisted, to ensure their long-term viability. For example, she said, Idaho's wolf plan is "very vague in conservation and management strategies."

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