Wildlife agency advances review of wolf status

JACKSON — The push to re-list wolves as an endangered species in the northern Rocky Mountains is being further studied, drawing ire from some outfitters and state wildlife agencies and guarded optimism from wolf watchers.

“Why in the hell do you want to start another damn fight?” asked Lynn Madsen, a longtime hunting guide who works in the Teton Wilderness southwest of Yellowstone National Park. He thinks Wyoming’s method of managing wolves is working, doesn’t think they should have been re-introduced in the first place, and worries about the impact further protections could have on area elk populations.

“It’s the biggest mistake they could make,” he said.

But Ash Tallmadge, a naturalist guide and manager of Yellowstone Safari Company, out of Bozeman, Montana, has opposed her state’s changing wolf hunting policy. As of Feb. 2, that policy had allowed hunters to harvest 19 Yellowstone wolves in the state and attracted the scorn of conservation groups nationwide.

Conservation groups and wildlife tour companies have fought the policy, and Tallmadge feels strongly about re-listing.

“If I had my way, I would go 100% for re-listing,” Tallmadge said.

She also feels that Montana should reduce its wolf hunt quotas. As it stands, state wildlife managers agreed to cut off the hunt just north of Yellowstone once 82 wolves were harvested; as of Jan. 28, 76 had been hunted or trapped.

Yellowstone reported Wednesday that its wolf population had fallen to 90, and park officials earlier said hunters had “eliminated” its Phantom Lake pack.

“Losing two wolves is dramatically different from losing 23 wolves or almost 30 wolves,” Tallmadge said, “and I hope that can be a compromise that is reached.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a Monday letter that two petitions filed to again protect Canis lupis in the western United States under the Endangered Species Act merit a full 12-month review. A decision on whether re-listing is warranted is now expected in September.

Gray wolves were eliminated from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the 1920s and re-introduced in 1995. They were delisted in Wyoming in 2017 and removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana six years prior.

While the most recent petitions were filed amid controversy over Montana’s and Idaho’s hunting policies, which conservation groups worry could wipe out over 85% of the 1,000-plus animals in both states, they also call for extending gray wolf protections to Wyoming and other Western states, including portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah.

Fish and Wildlife’s decision to move forward with a full, 12-month review drew a stern rebuke from Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, who pinned the move on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose department manages Fish and Wildlife.

“Managing Wyoming’s wildlife from Washington, D.C., is not a good model and is counter to the intent of the Endangered Species Act,” Gordon said in a statement. “I urge the secretary to ensure that the status review is grounded in science and recognizes the states’ strong track record effectively managing this species.”

Wolves are labeled as a trophy game animal in the area around Yellowstone National Park and considered predatory animals in most of the rest of the state.

As part of the 2017 delisting, Wyoming developed a wolf management plan that established a target population of at least 10 breeding pairs and at least 100 wolves. It manages them with hunting and agency control to reduce conflicts with livestock, ungulate herds and humans.

In 2020, the state issued 47 tags for gray wolf hunting, down from 51 the year prior, according to the Casper Star Tribune. The number of tags Wyoming issues each year changes depending on the number of wolves in the state, and aims to avoid infringing on the minimum population numbers set by the management plan.