CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has had no difficulty taking over monitoring wolves outside Yellowstone National Park since the federal government removed Wyoming’s wolves from endangered species protection last summer, according to the biologist now in charge of keeping an eye on the state’s population.
Wyoming must report annually on the status of its wolf population under its agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that got the animals delisted.
As a result, Wyoming has begun tracking about 40 radio-collared wolves in some 20 packs east and south of Yellowstone, a job that previously fell to Fish and Wildlife in that area.
Meanwhile, Wyoming’s first wolf hunt since delisting in August also has been providing data for the state agency. State biologists have been able to examine and take genetic samples from wolves killed by hunters this fall, said Mark Bruscino, large carnivore section supervisor for Game and Fish.
“By and large, hunters have acted ethically. They’re working with us, reporting harvests immediately,” Bruscino, who is based in Cody, said Tuesday.
The trophy hunting season for the area surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in northwest Wyoming began Oct. 1. As of Wednesday, at least 34 wolves had been killed toward the 52-wolf season limit.
The wolf hunt will continue until the limit is reached or the season ends Dec. 31. A third possibility: The judge in a lawsuit environmentalists filed Tuesday to contest Wyoming’s wolf management plan could issue an injunction halting the wolf hunt, which is what happened after Idaho and Montana’s wolves were delisted in 2009.
Outside Wyoming’s trophy game zone for wolves, wolves can be killed on sight without a license. Since August, about 15 wolves have been killed outside the trophy game area and as far away from Yellowstone as the Red Desert north of Rock Springs, Bruscino said.
Wyoming was home to about 300 wolves outside Yellowstone before delisting. The state has committed to maintaining at least 100 wolves and at least 10 breeding pairs outside Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming.
Tracking wolves has been no problem because Game and Fish biologists already have extensive experience monitoring other animals including bears and mountain lions, Bruscino said.
“We will build off of the existing body of knowledge and research on Yellowstone area wolves. But I think more of our focus will be on whether wolves are or aren’t impacting specific ungulate populations, and to what degree they may be impacting,” he said.
The information will help the department determine hunt limits for wolves and ungulates, namely moose and elk.
“In some situations, wolves do have a measurable impact on ungulate population. And then, in some circumstances, they do not. So we want to get a better handle on what herds may be impacted and to what extent,” Bruscino said.
Game and Fish has added radio collars to five wolves since August. Radio collars could be added to more wolves after the hunting season, with the goal of having radio collars on at least two wolves in each reproducing pack.
Tracking radio-collared wolves involves flying over the region at least a couple times a month to pick up signals and, if possible, spot and count wolves on the ground.
“I would call this a transition period from the research standpoint. We’re working with the research partners to finish up pending research, and we’ll look at other proposals with our research partners or internally as it comes up,” Bruscino said.
Game and Fish will coordinate with Yellowstone to release reports on Wyoming’s wolf population. Last year, Yellowstone’s wolf count was at least 100 animals.
The report on Wyoming’s 2012 wolf population will be released by mid-March.