Jackson, Wyo. (AP) – Wyoming's first-ever regulated wolf hunt – slated to kick off in about two months – probably won't reduce the intensity of a wolf-reduction program now run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Assuming the predator is removed from Endangered Species Act protection as planned, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's hunt will target 52 animals, about 22 percent of the state's wolf population.
About 10 percent more of Wyoming's wolf population, estimated at 240, lives in “predator zones'' where they can be killed at any time without a license.
Because wolf hunting is a crapshoot compared with the targeted killings of wolves that eat sheep and cattle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf manager Mike Jimenez doesn't see his job getting any easier. Last time Wyoming took control of wolves – before a court overturned the transfer of authority – he moved under the auspices of the state.
Aerial gunning, often aided by radio-collared wolves, is "not at all comparable'' to "shoot-on-sight'' permits or hunts, Jimenez tells the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
"We have helicopters, we trap, we call them in on the ground,'' Jimenez said. "It's not a fair hunt by any stretch. It's a livestock-control action that helps to minimize conflict.''
The Fish and Wildlife Service's issuance of "shoot-on-sight'' permits to ranchers who are losing livestock to wolves illustrates the futility of targeting problem wolves when armed with little more than a rifle. In 2011, 16 such permits were issued to livestock producers in Wyoming, and zero wolves were taken.
Hunter-success rates in Montana and Idaho, which have had wolf hunts for the past three years, further underline how difficult it is to identify, track and kill a problem wolf.
In Montana's 2011 hunt, just one-third of 1 percent of the state's 19,000 wolf tag buyers killed a wolf. In Idaho, more than 32,000 tags were sold and just 255 wolves were taken. That's less than a 1 percent success rate, despite the fact that the season was extended and ended up running for eight months.
When trapping is allowed, the success rates are much better, Jimenez said. Almost a quarter of Idaho's 526 wolf-trapping tags were filled last year, he said.
On the other side of the coin, the Fish and Wildlife Service's removal program in Wyoming has proven remarkably effective.
In 2011, 36 wolves were killed to reduce livestock depredation. Through July 27, 19 wolves have been removed this year, Jimenez said.
The program has grown more efficient over the years as well, Wyoming Wolf Program status reports show.
Despite an increase of more than 200 percent in wolf population, Jimenez and Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have had to remove fewer animals over the past decade. From 2003 to 2007, an average of 39 wolves a year were killed due to depredation, but the average fell to just 34 a year from 2008 to 2012.
Comparing the same two periods, cattle losses fell abruptly, from 68 head to 27 head. Sheep depredation rose significantly, from 21 a year to 60 a year, but that's been due mostly to one or two wolves killing dozens of animals, Jimenez said.
Jimenez attributes the program's successes to quicker, more surgical and preventative removals.
"We have a tight policy where if wolves are killing livestock, we don't allow it to happen,'' he said. "In the early days, we were more hesitant, because we didn't know the mortality that the population could sustain. What we find now is that the population is stable and very robust. When wolves start killing, we respond much more rapidly. We do it earlier in the season, so the dead livestock doesn't start stacking up.''