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Science shows healthy wolf population

by Daily Inter Lake
| February 11, 2024 12:00 AM

The most recent data compiled by state and federal wildlife biologists shows a healthy, diverse and stable wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains.

The species’ recovery in the West from near extinction in the 1980s to a healthy population of some 2,800 wolves across 286 packs in seven states is among one of the most remarkable achievements in Endangered Species Act history. 

Having well surpassed recovery goals, federal protections for northern Rockies wolves were rightly lifted in 2011 through congressional authorization, and according to a decision last week from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that’s how it should remain.

Conservation groups had petitioned the agency to relist the region’s wolves under federal protections, arguing that decades of recovery efforts could be lost if hunting is allowed to continue.

But that’s simply not backed by the facts. 

The service said it made the decision following an “extensive peer-reviewed assessment using the best available science” that indicates wolves are not at risk of extinction in the West “now or in the foreseeable future.”

A deeper dive into the Fish and Wildlife Service’s notification of finding shows its assessment looked at the rate of human-caused wolf mortality, disease, inbreeding, potential effects of climate change and habitat loss, and still, “the population maintains high genetic diversity and connectivity, further supporting their ability to adapt to future changes.”

“Our analysis of the current condition of gray wolves in the Western United States demonstrates that, despite current levels of regulated harvest, lethal control, and episodic disease outbreaks, wolf abundance in the Western United States has generally continued to increase and occupied range has continued to expand since reintroduction in the 1990s,” the agency stated. 

It further noted that “Our analysis indicates that wolves will avoid extirpation in the Western United States over the next 100 years. Even in the extremely unlikely scenarios in which harvest substantially increases and is maintained at high rates over time in Idaho and Montana, while population sizes decrease in these states, the overall population remains well above quasi-extinction levels.”

In Montana, a 2022 survey pegged the wolf population at about 1,087. That same calendar year a total of 248 wolves were harvested through legal hunting rules established in 2011. Another 45 were killed in response to livestock depredations.

The most recent 2023-24 wolf hunting quota data shows that Northwest Montana has yet to meet the threshold with just a month to go in the season. It’s the same scenario for west-central and southwest Montana.

At this pace, Montana’s wolf numbers are poised to remain well within delisting thresholds for decades to come.

It’s insincere and disappointing that conservation groups continue to argue the species faces impending peril, despite the science. Espousing that false rhetoric diminishes the importance of the Endangered Species Act and unnecessarily calls into question federal protections for other species that actually deserve the endangered or threatened status.

Species are not meant to remain under federal protections forever. The goal is recovery and the eventual establishment of sustained management practices by local experts. 

Let’s celebrate this recovery success story, not milk it for legal angling and political agendas.

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