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Wolf report shows stable population numbers through 2021

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | August 12, 2022 7:00 AM

Despite the histrionics from some when the Montana Game and Fish Commission increased harvest opportunities last year, the 2021-22 wolf harvest showed a marked decrease and the population continues to be stable.

On Aug. 1, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released its wolf report which indicated wolf numbers and distribution continue to be stable across Montana.

“What the data shows us really isn’t surprising,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech in a press release. “Our management of wolves, including ample hunting and trapping opportunities, have kept numbers at a relatively stable level during the past several years.”

In understanding this report, people must keep in mind that population trends are monitored by the calendar year, in this case 2021, which is consistent with how FWP and other agencies have tracked wolf populations since the 1980s and how wolf populations are tracked in other areas.

However, the wolf hunting and trapping season ended March 15, 2022. The harvest realized during this first three months of 2022 isn’t reflected in the 2021 wolf population estimate.

In the past season, a total of 273 wolves were taken, 148 by hunters and 125 by trappers, according to figures from FWP. It was the lowest total since 2017 when 254 wolves were harvested, 166 by hunters and 88 by trappers.

The total calendar-year 2021 wolf harvest in Montana was 299. In addition, Wildlife Services killed 39 wolves that were found to be attacking or killing livestock.

In 2020-21, 329 wolves were taken while 2019-20 saw 293 harvested. In 2018-19, 295 wolves were taken.

Hunters and trappers in Region 1 bagged 108 wolves, first in the state. Fifty-wolves were taken in Wolf Management Unit 101. It was first in the state and in Region 1. The region encompasses 1.9 million acres.

Another interesting aspect of the data is that wolf trapping efforts were down this license year from past years. This means fewer trappers were on the landscape. Potential reasons for this include unfavorable weather conditions during the trapping season.

The 2021 Montana Legislature approved a suite of legislation that added more tools for hunters and trappers for harvesting wolves. The legislature also passed legislation directing FWP to manage wolves in a manner that would reduce numbers to a sustainable level above minimum recovery goals.

In response, the Fish and Wildlife Commission increased bag limits, allowed snaring outside of lynx protection zones, and extended the season.

Additionally, the commission also set harvest threshold numbers in each FWP region and at a statewide scale that required them to reconvene if those harvest levels were met. Ultimately, the commission closed wolf season in southwest Montana early because the pre-established threshold was met.

“We are following the law,” Worsech said. “And are doing so in a way that provides certainty that wolf populations in Montana will remain off the Endangered Species List.”

Changes in hunting and trapping included eliminating quotas for specific areas, increasing the number of wolf hunting licenses allowed for individual hunters (10 per hunter), increasing the number of wolves allowed to be legally harvested on one trapping license (10 per trapper), extending the wolf trapping season and implementing a floating start date within grizzly bear occupied areas, and adding new harvest tools to include snaring, night hunting on private property, and baiting.

The number of wolf hunters has actually dropped significantly. In 2014 numbers peaked at 15,570, by 2021, that number was just 8,175.

By the numbers

The estimated wolf population in Montana at the end of 2021 is 1,141. This is down 40 wolves from 1,181 in 2020. This is not a statistically significant difference. In the last 10 years, wolf populations saw an estimated high of 1,256 in 2011 and a low of 1,113 in 2017. The small difference in these two numbers demonstrates a population trend that is very stable.

At the end of 2021, Montana had an estimated 192 wolf packs. This is down from an estimated 198 in 2020. In the last 10 years, estimated pack numbers have fluctuated from a high of 205 in 2012 to a low of 186 in 2017.

Methodology

FWP employed new population estimation methodology in 2007, called integrated patch occupancy model (iPOM). This methodology has undergone a scientific peer review both of its individual components and the cumulative process as a whole.

iPOM pulls together a variety of different sources of data, including information from FWP biologists, to produce population and distribution estimates. Another important source of data come from hunter harvest surveys that are conducted by FWP every year.

These surveys ask deer and elk hunters if they saw wolves while hunting and, if so, where. These surveys are done after hunting season and are necessary to make an accurate estimate.

To see the latest wolf report and other wolf management information, click here https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/wolf.