Montana’s wolf population still strong, report shows

Wolf numbers in Montana remained healthy in 2016 and at more than three times the federally mandated minimums.

Montana’s annual wolf report shows a minimum of 477 wolves were counted for 2016. That’s down from 536 wolves counted in 2015, but doesn’t necessarily reflect a reduction in wolf numbers, but rather a reduction in counting effort.  Included in this number is a minimum number of 50 breeding pairs. This compares to a minimum count of 32 breeding pairs in 2015, and 34 breeding pairs in 2014.

“Though the minimum count is down, we’ve long held that these minimum counts are useful only in ensuring Montana’s wolf population stays above the federally mandated minimum threshold. The minimum count is not a population count or an index or estimate of the total number of wolves,” said Bob Inman, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks carnivore and furbearer program chief.

The actual wolf population in Montana is hard to pin down, but FWP employs another counting method that get closer. The Patch Occupancy Model, or POM, incorporates data on territory and wolf pack sizes, along with hunter observations and known wolf locations to get to a more accurate estimation of wolf populations.

The most recent POM estimate from 2014 was 892 wolves in Montana, about 61 percent higher than the minimum counts from that year. Data for 2015 and 2016 POM counts of Montana’s wolves are being compiled and will be analyzed this summer.

The other benefit of the POM method is it’s a much cheaper undertaking since it incorporates data analysis rather than direct counting efforts.

During the 2016/2017 wolf hunting and trapping season, 246 wolves were harvested – 163 by hunters and 83 by trappers. This is the highest harvest to date, but only 16 wolves higher than the 2013/2014 season; 2016 also saw 57 confirmed wolf livestock depredations – 52 cattle, five sheep. That’s down from 64 in 2016.

According to a report by the Seattle Times, Montana wildlife officials want to switch to a different model to count wolves in the state, saying the current one is too expensive and is inaccurate.

According to that report, hunters and ranchers have long claimed that the wolf population is higher than reported and that hunting should be expanded. Environmentalists say the state wolf population is declining and the new system will be unreliable, making management more difficult and putting the species in danger. The new system would use data from hunters and likely result in high population estimates.

In the mid-1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. FWP began monitoring the wolf population and managing livestock conflicts in 2004. After several court challenges, wolves were successfully delisted in 2011.

The delisting of wolves in 2011 allows Montana to manage wolves as it does any other game species, which is guided by state management plans, administrative rules and laws.

To learn more about Montana’s wolf population, go to fwp.mt.gov and click Montana Wolves.

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