SUBLETTE COUNTY – It’s finally official.
For the second time in five years, Wyoming’s gray wolves are delisted and returned to state management as of Tuesday afternoon, April 25, after the final necessary order was filed in federal appellate court.
Wyoming wolves had been delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2012 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the population had reached and surpassed its target for a number of years, accepting Wyoming Game and Fish’s management plan. A 2014 court decision overturned delisting and returned wolves to FWS management.
Wyoming now has estimated 377 wolves in Wyoming, in 52 packs with 25 breeding pairs, according to the FWS Wednesday.
“It is deeply gratifying that we can officially recognize the strong and diverse partnerships that made the vision of wolf recovery a reality,” said FWS Mountain-Prairie regional director Noreen Walsh. “We particularly applaud the efforts of the state of Wyoming in implementing their gray wolf management plan and we are confident that they will continue to execute this plan moving forward. Their continued commitment to managing wolves will ensure we maintain a robust, stable and self-sustaining population into the future.”
While the FWS still plans to republish its 2012 delisting rule in the Federal Register, Wyoming officials confirmed the FWS returned wolf management to the G&F Department and Commission, at the moment when U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ judges filed the final order reinforcing their March 3 decision.
“I am delighted that the Circuit Court recognized Wyoming’s commitment to manage a recovered wolf population,” announced Gov. Matt Mead. “Our wolf management plan is a result of years of hard work by people across Wyoming. We recognize the need to maintain a healthy wolf population. I thank former Secretaries of the Interior Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell as well as former FWS director Dan Ashe and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for their commitment to getting this done. This is a good day for Wyoming.”
G&F officials released their own announcement within minutes.
“We are honored to carry out our trust responsibilities to manage all wildlife species in the state. Wyoming has a track record of leading conservation and we are committed to again continuing our work to maintain a recovered wolf population,” said Brian Nesvik, Wildlife Division chief.
Wyoming management is unique in that it has two zones – one of them with seasonal adjustments. As of Tuesday afternoon, wolves are protected in the trophy-game zone – and fair game in the predator zone, where hunters do not need a license.
The G&F’s trophy-game zone is centered around, but does not include, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, where they are federally managed. Wolves on the Wind River Indian Reservation are also outside G&F management.
G&F spokesman Renny McKay said, “Now that wolves are delisted, wolf hunting will not occur in the trophy-game management area, as there is currently not an active season in place. This part of the state is where the majority of wolves in Wyoming live.”
He continued, “To reestablish hunting seasons, Game and Fish would use the current population estimates to develop hunt area quotas for hunting that would occur the following hunting season. All season development would go through the full public comment process as it has in the past.”
Wolf-hunting seasons and quotas for the trophy-game area, which holds most of the state’s gray wolves year-round, are expected “in the near future.”
“Updated gray wolf hunting regulations will be posted after Game and Fish Commission approval,” says a note on the G&F website. Its next meeting will be July 18-20.
McKay said the G&F expects to have the full public process and commission approval in time for this year’s fall trophy-game hunting season.
G&F will have some adjustments to consider after two years of wolves being under FWS management.
“While wolves were on the endangered species list the federal government was still removing many wolves from the population to manage to reduce the high number of conflicts. Those removals and other human caused mortalities in past years will be considered in future wolf conservation decisions,” McKay said.
FWS removed a number of wolves from Hoback Basin in 2016 after confirming wolf-killed livestock.
The state’s 2014 management plan requires at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside the parks and reservation. The state also committed to coordinate with those entities to ensure a total of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves statewide at a minimum, with five pairs and 50 wolves maintained in Yellowstone and on the reservation.
Where wolves fall into the “predatory animal” category, they can be shot on sight without a license the same as coyotes, foxes and other nuisance animals. There is an exception – a portion of this predatory area is reclassified as “seasonal trophy game” from Oct. 15 through Feb. 28 as a buffer.
Hunters taking wolves in the predatory area must report to G&F within 10 days.
“Game and Fish does not manage for population viability outside the trophy-game management area as wolves that occur in these areas are much more prone to conflict with humans,” said McKay.
This brings wolves in the zone not managed by G&F under an umbrella held by the Sublette County Predator Board, which assists area ranchers and landowners where the wolf is now considered a predator.
When wolves were listed, FWS and USDA’s Wildlife Services managed and removed wolves statewide that attacked or killed livestock. Now, G&F oversees problem wolves in the trophy-game area and continues to compensate for confirmed losses, only in that zone, however.
Cat Urbigkit, longtime officer on the county predator board, said Thursday that its operations and funding will not be greatly altered where G&F handles wolf-depredation issues in the trophy zone.
“The predator board will respond to livestock producers requesting control within the predator zone,” she said in an email.
The board plans to meet May 11 at 5 p.m. in the commissioners meeting room to go over “two main issues the board needs to review” – wolf carcasses and aerial pilot/ gunning permits, she said.
“Once wolves are delisted, wolves are the responsibility of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department within the trophy game area,” says the predator board notice. “Within the predator zone, landowners, sportsmen and livestock producers have the opportunity to control wolves, but there may be some cases in which the predator board is called for wolf control. If the predator board receives these calls from producers within the predator zone, we will call in Wildlife Services – just as we would with depredating coyotes, and the predator board pays the bill.”
In 2008, the board agreed that if wolf removal occurs, those carcasses remain the board’s property and would be treated and sold to fund the predator board’s wolf control program.
“Much has changed since 2008 when this policy was adopted, but this policy remains in place until the board meets and institutes changes,” the notice states. Board members will decide if the issue of pilots and gunners also needs a policy.
Livestock and pet owners in the trophy-game area can now kill a wolf only if it is actively harassing or attacking an animal in a way likely to result in its death; these must be reported to G&F within 72 hours for confirmation and compensation. They might be issued a lethal-take or “kill” permit.
In the predator zone, however, they can shoot to kill without a permit or license and must report it to G&F within 10 days. There are no G&F control actions or compensations here, however. A person seeking compensation would need to contact the Sublette County Predator Board for assistance.
To reach this point, Wyoming and FWS had appealed a 2014 court ruling that cited flaws in the state’s plan and relisted wolves under the FWS. That was overturned in the March 3 ruling, also kicking off 45-day period to see if Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity would protest – which they choose to not do.
For more about Wyoming’s wolf management plan, go to http://wgfd.wyo.gov/.