Wyoming elk kill fans wolf debate flames

Cheyenne, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming wildlife officials said they’ve never seen anything like it: A pack of wolves killed 19 elk at a western Wyoming feeding ground and didn’t even bother to eat any part of any elk.

They pointed to the kill as an example of the need to let the state – rather than the federal government – manage wolves.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can do little to prevent such kills as long as wolves remain federally protected and not under state control, said John Lund, Game and Fish regional director.

“With the management authority, that would allow us to address isolated issues like this or in other areas where wolves are having an impact on elk herds,” Lund said.

Animal rights groups that sued to restore endangered species protection for wolves in Wyoming in 2014 contend that if Game and Fish had control, wolves would be the species at risk. The groups believe Wyoming would allow wolves to be shot on sight in most of the state.

Representatives of Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council are two of the groups that sued.

The killing happened the night of Tuesday, March 22 or early Wednesday, March 23 at McNeel feedground near Bondurant, one of 22 western Wyoming feedgrounds where state wildlife managers put out grass and alfalfa hay to help elk survive the winter. Seventeen of the elk killed were calves born last year.

A contractor delivering feed to the herd discovered the dead animals.

Wolves eat a lot of large prey, averaging as many as 22 ungulates – elk, antelope, deer, or moose – a year. And wolves often kill without eating their prey. But Game and Fish has never documented wolves killing so many elk without eating the animals, Lund said.

“It’s extremely rare in that severity,” he said.

Game and Fish says wolves have killed as many as 75 elk at the McNeel feedground this winter – so many that Brian Nesvik, agency division chief, wrote to a top federal wolf management official Feb. 1 asking what could be done.

The pack suspected of killing the elk has nine wolves, Lund said. There are about 1,100 elk in the area, he said, and about 7 percent of the population has been lost to wolves this winter.

“There is a significant concern among wildlife managers,” he said, noting that there are no reports of wolves attacking humans. “Our concern is big game.”

The lawsuit by wolf activist groups doesn’t permit many options, Mike Jimenez, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional wolf coordinator, wrote back. “Even if we had authority to move wolves, it is likely that translocated wolves would return to the area within a short time period,” he wrote.

One western Wyoming hunting guide expressed anguish that wolves are taking such a toll on game after being reintroduced to the Yellowstone region in the mid-1990s.

“We are losing our minds. The feds have got our hands tied,” said B.J. Hill, of Swift Creek Outfitters. “This thing is going to turn into a chronic mess.”

Wolves have remained off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho since 2011 through an federal bill rider that did two things – delisted wolves and prevented protectionist groups from suing to relist wolves. Federal legislators are now trying to push a similar bill through the House of Representatives and Senate to delist wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wyoming. A similar effort this past summer was vetoed by President Obama.

In Wyoming, wolves were delisted in 2012 and 2013 before being relisted in 2014.

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