Animal Rights

Big Problem: Wolf Population Not Growing in Northern Rockies

| by NRDC

An Associated Press article reports that, according to court documents filed by Montana wildlife officials yesterday in the federal lawsuit over the removal of Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in Idaho and Montana (to which NRDC is a party), the preliminary estimate for the current size of the Northern Rockies wolf population is approximately 1,650 wolves.

If the preliminary estimate turns out to be correct, 2009 will mark the first year since wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s that the population has not grown, as the official 2008 population size estimate was also approximately 1,650 wolves.

And that’s a big problem. 

For a sustainably recovered population of wolves in the Northern Rockies, the latest science points to the need for a population of at least 2,000 wolves. 

We’re close to full recovery, but we’re not quite there yet.  And, unfortunately, it looks like last year’s premature wolf hunts and aggressive government control actions, which contributed to a record of more than 500 wolves killed, have further delayed full recovery.  (And the numbers do not include illegal kills, which were likely significant.) 

The Northern Rockies wolf population has been steadily growing at a rate of about 20% per year since reintroduction.  Such impressive growth can be attributed to the success of the reintroduction and the compatibility of wolves with their native landscape (i.e., wolves belong here, and the landscape needs them).  

Without the hunts (and without a significant increase in control actions), the population would have been expected to grow another 20% or so last year, putting it within spitting distance of 2,000 wolves.  Instead, the population has been stopped in its tracks.  (And Montana is already exploring more aggressive kill quotas for its 2010 hunt, and we expect Idaho to do the same.)

Of course, state wildlife officials will cite this preliminary estimate as proof that the inaugural wolf hunts were successful, even though such claims are specious.

Besides halting population growth and further delaying recovery, the premature hunts were harmful in other ways. 

Many backcountry wolves were needlessly killed, as neither the hunt in Montana nor the hunt in Idaho was the least bit designed to target front-country wolves or wolves that reside in high-depredation areas.  While the state agencies claimed the wolf hunts would be a panacea for livestock conflicts, there is absolutely no evidence that this was an actual strategy or that it worked (e.g., Montana’s quota system was based on only three hunting areas -- not exactly targeted).  Quite to the contrary, Montana had to scramble in October and shut down the wolf hunt north of Yellowstone National Park after several wilderness wolves and multiple Yellowstone wolves had already been killed, including radio-collared wolves from the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

We also have no idea what effect the hunts will have on livestock depredations.  Notwithstanding assurances from state wildlife officials that the hunts will help reduce conflicts, the reality is that the hunts could easily exacerbate conflicts by disrupting pack structures (i.e., more juvenile wolves now looking for an easy meal without hunting guidance from experienced wolves) or killing the wrong wolves (i.e., wolves that avoided livestock ranches (and taught their young to avoid them) might have been killed, thus removing “good” wolves from the population). 

We want to see wolves fully recovered in the Northern Rockies.  When that happens, we will not oppose a sustainable wolf hunt. 

Sadly, we are not there yet.  And, no matter how you spin them, last year’s wolf hunts were premature andpoorly planned, which is why we challenged them in federal court.

Now, with the Montana hunt over and Idaho’s ending on March 31st, the lawsuit brought by NRDC and other conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, seeking to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana will take center stage in the world of Northern Rockies wolves.

Oh, how I wish a fully recovered Northern Rockies wolf population was center stage.

(Wolf photo by SigmaEye on Flickr)