Wolf populations in Montana appear to be “very stable,” according to a new report from the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks department. FWP noted a slight decline in wolf numbers in 2021, but compared to the trend across the last decade the population remained relatively stable. Wildlife managers in the state see this as an indication that their management tactics are working as designed.
The report showed an estimated 1,144 wolves in the state at the end of 2021. This is down from 1,181 at the end of 2020, but it’s not outside the norm. The lowest the state’s wolf population has been during the last decade was in 2017 at 1,113. The highest it’s been was 1,256 in 2011.
“What the data shows us really isn’t surprising,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech. “Our management of wolves, including ample hunting and trapping opportunities, have kept numbers at a relatively stable level during the past several years.”
The report only shows data from the calendar year, which means that any wolves killed in 2022 are not included. The state’s hunting and trapping season runs from Thanksgiving to March 15, so the overall wolf harvest from that season won’t be fully reflected in FWP’s data until next year’s report.
FWP noted that wolf trapping license purchases were down last year, which the agency attributed to poor weather conditions during the winter season. This kept some trappers from going out, and caused FWP to extend the season and increase bag limits. These changes were made in addition to new regulations, including the legalization of neck snares, hunting at night on private lands, and the elimination of quotas in certain areas.
“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.”
The idea, according to Worsech, is to keep wolf populations at healthy levels and not allow them to swing too far in one direction or the other.
However, Marc Cooke, president of the environmental group Wolves of the Rockies, said he is skeptical of the FWP report. “I don’t think we have the wolves they are telling us they have,” he told the Daily Montanan earlier this week.
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More Wolf Controversy in Montana
The state received more than 26,000 public comments on its new wolf hunting strategies, and a majority of them opposed a more aggressive wolf hunt, according to Montana Public Radio. These new regulations were hotly debated even after they passed, with some wolf advocacy groups filing lawsuits in response.
The pushback against Montana’s wolf management tactics reached a fever pitch this winter. In February, reports revealed that hunters along the Yellowstone National Park boundary had killed 25 of the park’s wolves—the most killed in a single season since the species was re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995. A story published in The Intercept two weeks ago added more fuel to this fire, as it looked into claims that collared wolves from the park were being hunted by park rangers and killed illegally. So far, investigations into those claims have found no wrongdoing.
The gray wolf population in the US has been increasing, according to the International Wolf Center. In Alaska, there are between 8,000 and 11,000 wolves. There are around 5,500 in the Lower 48, and Montana’s wolves represent an important piece of this overall population.