HELENA – Montana’s wolf counts dropped slightly but remained well above mandated minimums in the final year of federal oversight of state management.
In its annual report released Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with other federal, state and tribal agencies, detailed 2015 wolf populations in the Northern Rockies. At least 1,704 wolves in 282 packs were observed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming last year, determined by federally mandated minimum counts in the three-state area.
An additional 200 wolves in 34 packs are estimated in Oregon and Washington.
“The wolf population has exceeded recovery goals identified by the service and partner biologists in 2002. Wolves continue to expand their range westward in eastern Oregon and Washington,” USFWS said in a news release.
Management targets for the Northern Rockies call for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to each maintain a minimum of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves. Minimum counts estimated 536 wolves with 32 breeding pairs in Montana; 786 wolves with 33 breeding pairs in Idaho; and 382 wolves with 30 breeding pairs in Wyoming.
The report comes in the fifth and final year of federal monitoring of the minimum counts under the predator’s 2011 delisting from the Endangered Species Act. The oversight, meant to ensure the states stayed above mandated minimums, ends in May for Montana and Idaho.
Wolves remain under federal protection in Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
A coalition of conservation groups has threatened litigation if federal monitoring ends, citing concerns that liberalized harvest regulations may reduce the populations below standards.
“Given the situation on the ground and the ways state policy is changing, we think the prudent thing to do is keep monitoring wolf populations so they’re not hunted and trapped back to the brink of extinction,” Mathew Koehler of Missoula-based Wild West Institute told the Missoulian.
Wolves are classified as a big-game animal in Montana with regulated hunting and trapping seasons along with lethal removal for threatening or killing livestock.
Last year, the state documented mortality at 276 wolves, down from 308 in 2014. The figures include all deaths including those from vehicles, poaching and disease.
Of the 276, 39 wolves were killed due to livestock depredation and another 12 were killed for threatening livestock or pets. Officials documented 64 depredations last year, up 17 from 2014.
As Montana looks to the end of federal oversight, FWP is also looking forward to a new monitoring method officials believe will provide better population estimates, said Game Management Bureau chief John Vore.
Called “patch occupancy modeling,” FWP has used the statistical approach in recent years along with the minimum counts. The method, which is much less expensive, uses deer and elk hunter observations coupled with information from radio-collared wolves to estimate population and range.
FWP will continue the minimum count for a couple of years along with the modeling, Vore said. The department knows that because the minimum count only documents wolf observations, the difficulty of counting higher populations in difficult terrain means wolves are significantly undercounted, he added.
Eventually, graduating to patch occupancy modeling should provide a truer count as shown in current research, Vore said.
“We’ll continue (minimum counts) until we get our POM very refined and robust,” he said. “It speaks to how the minimum count has really fallen behind with what we’ve needed with growing populations and some staffing issues. We’re very excited to have a more realistic population estimate.”
The end of federal oversight also means the loss of some funding, but Vore noted the cost savings associated with patch occupancy modeling. While FWP will continue to employ wolf specialists, the minimum counts require more seasonal employees and time in airplanes not necessary with modeling.