First Wyo. wolf hunt over, future uncertain

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:58 PM

Christine Peterson

CASPER, Wyo. -- He spends most of his fall outside in the mountains, so finding a wolf was not a matter of if, but when.

Like most hunters, Joe Hargrave bought wolf tag to put in his pocket just in case; he wasn’t wolf hunting, specifically. Hargrave had been elk hunting in early October when he saw wolves lying in a meadow several miles away. It took three hours to sneak up on the pack of seven. Waiting in the trees, he chose one and shot.

On Oct. 5, just four days after the season opened, Hargrave, a Dubois taxidermist and outfitter, became one of Wyoming’s first hunters to legally kill a wolf since 1974.

“It was pretty neat to be able to hunt them because they’re a magnificent animal,” Hargrave said. “I like to see them in the wild just like elk, moose and everything else. It is nice to be able to have the opportunity to hunt them.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed wolves from the endangered species list in Wyoming on Sept. 30, kicking off the first hunting season since wolves were placed on the list in 1974. Since then, 41 wolves have been killed in 12 hunting areas, 23 killed in the predator zone and 39 killed by wildlife officials for livestock damage. Conservation groups have filed three lawsuits seeking to re-list the wolves; they are expected to be decided sometime in 2013.

Wyoming was the last Rocky Mountain state to see wolves delisted. The Bush administration removed Wyoming’s wolves in March 2008, but a judge placed them back on four months later, citing the state’s failure to ensure genetic interchange between Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

The Obama administration removed wolves from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho in 2011, but Wyoming’s wolves remained listed.

On Sept. 30, the Fish and Wildlife Service once again removed wolves from the list in Wyoming, saying the species was recovered in the Cowboy State and the state’s management plan was sufficient.

The plan divides Wyoming into three areas:

A trophy game area in northwest Wyoming in which wolves will be regulated by a hunting season from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. A small, seasonal-game area in northern Lincoln and Sublette counties in which hunters need licenses for part of the year and can shoot them on sight as predators the other part. Called the “flex zone,” it gives more protection to wolves for a portion of the year as they move between Wyoming and Idaho. In the rest of the state, wolves will be considered predators, meaning they can be shot on sight.

Wyoming is required to keep a minimum of 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.

A minimum of five breeding pairs and 50 wolves are required inside Yellowstone.

The plan allowed 52 wolves of the estimated 220 to 230 to be killed this fall in northwest Wyoming outside of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and the Wind River Reservation.

By Wednesday, the last time reported, 41 wolves had been killed in the trophy area. The season closes Monday.

“I am extremely happy with how the harvest has been spread around the wolf trophy game and management area,” said Brian Nesvik, chief of the wildlife division for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Even if we come in under quota, it’s been a very successful season.”

Conservation groups raised concern this fall when five wolves collared for research purposes by wildlife officials in Yellowstone National Park were killed by hunters in Montana. Wolf hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks. In response, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission closed areas north of Yellowstone to hunting this year.

Hunters have killed three wolves in Wyoming collared by either Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks this fall, Nesvik said.

Wyoming should consider following Montana’s lead and establish subunits around the parks to help protect those wolves that may wander outside of the parks during the hunting season, said Chris Colligan, Wyoming wildlife advocate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Losing collared wolves from the park is a loss of data, and shooting wolves from national park packs can disrupt the stability of a pack, Colligan said.

“I think where you draw the line is when there are harms to park resources and if we get to the point where we can say there are these harms to park resources, then hunting wolves may need to be closed in those units,” Colligan said.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission would have to decide if Wyoming needs a buffer around the parks.

“Biologically, there is no difference to the population between taking a collared wolf versus a noncollared wolf,” Nesvik said.

Days after the Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wyoming’s wolf decision, Earthjustice filed a notice of intent to sue. About two months later the nonprofit environmental law firm filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The groups say Wyoming’s wolf management plan is too aggressive, especially by allowing wolves to be shot on sight in 85 percent of the state, said Mike Leahy, Rockies and Plains director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Wyoming estimated about 32 wolves lived in the predator zone before hunting began. As of Wednesday, 23 wolves had been killed in the predator zone.

Nevik said that was about the number wildlife officials anticipated would be killed.

It’s not about the number killed this year but about the overall plan, Leahy said.

“The state’s goal is clearly to eliminate all wolves from the predator zone and prevent them from ever recovering there,” he said. “The state is simply ignoring its obligation, or refusing its obligation, to manage wolves through the state that includes really important wolf habitat in national forest and on federal lands.”

Since Earthjustice filed its lawsuit, two other similar suits have been filed.

The second lawsuit was filed in the end of November by Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Conservation Congress, Friends of Animals, Friends of the Clearwater, National Wolfwatcher Coalition, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.

The final lawsuit was filed in mid-December in Washington, D.C., by the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals.

The first time groups sued -- and won -- over Wyoming’s wolves, 12 groups joined the same lawsuit, including several of the groups suing separately this time.

On Dec. 21, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., merged two of the lawsuits filed by separate coalitions of groups. The lead group in one lawsuit is Defenders of Wildlife, while the lead in the other is the Humane Society of the United States.

The third lawsuit is still pending in federal court in Denver.

There is no advantage to suing separately, said Ralph Henry, the Humane Society’s deputy director of litigation.

Shooting his wolf this year was easier than Hargrave expected. He wonders if it’s because they haven’t been shot at in decades in Wyoming.

Even over the course of the season he noticed a change in their behavior. They’re already smarter and more skittish than they were in the beginning.

“They’re going to get harder to find and stay in the timber during the day,” Hargrave said. “The more we hunt them the more they will wise up to what’s going on.”

In the meantime, lawsuits will move through the court system. The Fish and Wildlife Service filed a motion to have the Earthjustice lawsuit moved from Washington, D.C., to Wyoming. A decision on the motion is still pending.

Henry hopes a decision comes before the beginning of the 2013 wolf hunting season.

Wyoming will continue to manage wolves in the state, learning the ropes from Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. Wyoming wildlife officials plan to collar about 25 to 30 wolves each year. The numbers will help officials keep track of wolf numbers and plan quotas for hunting seasons, Nesvik said. Officials will also monitor genetics to show if wolves are successfully moving between populations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

The state budgeted about $600,000 for wolf management for the first two years. During the 2012 hunting season it sold 4,469 licenses and made $112,518 from the sales that will contribute to management, Nesvik said.

The trophy season ends Monday. Whether it opens again Oct. 1 will be up to the courts to decide.

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