JACKSON — Federal wildlife conflict specialists say they will no longer kill wolves in Wyoming that have not already been implicated in preying on livestock.
In addition to ending “preventative” killing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services is instating a population-dependent cap on the overall number of Wyoming wolves that can be killed in any year. The cap will be set at no more than 30% of the statewide population. Federal trappers and gunners working with stockmen and woolgrowers will also prioritize nonlethal methods ahead of making the call to take out wolves, and the agency will tabulate its nonlethal efforts annually in monitoring reports.
These are among the changes Wildlife Services has ordered to its business-as-usual protocols for dealing with wolf depredation. They were added to a final decision the agency published last month in response to public calls for coexistence and heeding science. The goal of Wildlife Service’s plan is twofold: to “conserve wolf populations” while also “protecting livestock, other domestic animals, and human health and safety in Wyoming.”
“Risk of frustrated individuals using illegal or inappropriate methods to resolve conflicts are lowest with this alternative,” Wildlife Services officials wrote in a decision memo signed May 10 by Wildlife Services Regional Director Jason Suckow.
“This alternative also gives Wildlife Services-Wyoming access to the widest possible range of legally available wolf damage management methods,” the decision states, “and best enables the program to develop site-specific plans to effectively reduce conflicts with wolves, meet landowner/management objectives for site use, and minimize potential for adverse environmental impacts.”
Alongside its decision, Wildlife Services also published a 243-page environmental assessment that details past and projected conflict mitigation operations in Wyoming. The agency, according to the document, has been the dominant player in dealing with conflict wolves since Canis lupus was reintroduced to the landscape in the mid-1990s after a 60-year absence. Averaged over time, every year Wildlife Services kills about 16 percent of the several hundred lobos that roam the state, operating at the request of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, county predator boards and individuals.
“Based on historical levels,” the environmental assessment says, “take by Wildlife Services-Wyoming is not anticipated to exceed 30% of the statewide wolf population with most years averaging under 18% of the statewide population.”
The 30% cap will not necessarily mean a reduction in wolf killing, because Wildlife Services has never before killed such a high proportion of the population. In the era since wolves were reintroduced 24 years ago, lethal wolf control peaked in 2016, when Wildlife Services eliminated 111 wolves, then 27% of the estimated state population.
Wildlife Services’ Wyoming operations are concentrated in places where lots of livestock mostly commonly encounter wolves. Its personnel periodically respond to incidents in Teton County, including to some high-profile clashes between wolves and cattle in places like Spring Gulch. While ground-based trapping and shooting were the techniques of choice in those semi-developed areas, the agency often uses aerial methods.
Wildlife Service-Wyoming keeps a fleet of five aircraft to deal with wolves and other species deemed nuisances. Over a recent 10-year period, 73% of the wolves the agency killed were shot from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, typically with a shotgun, according to the environmental assessment.
Two alternative options dismissed in Wildlife Service’ environmental assessment include ceasing operations in Wyoming and shifting to a nonlethal-only approach of conflict management. The chosen alternative instead authorizes killing wolves only when “nonlethal methods have been considered and deemed ineffective or inappropriate,” the decision memo says.
Nonlethal methods discussed include compensating ranchers, implementing herding and fencing techniques, and using livestock guardian dogs or frightening devices like lights, propane exploders or fladry, which are flag-like devices.
One Victor, Idaho, environmental activist who acts as a watchdog of Wildlife Services said she was pleased plans were tweaked in response to public comments but wishes the agency more forcefully required nonlethal methods be used first.
“The biggest problem that remains is that Wildlife Services still comes to the same conclusion: must kill wolves,” Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Andrea Santarsiere said. “One alternative that we asked them to consider is to require landowners to use nonlethal methods to minimize the risk of predations before requesting removal of wolves.
“Wildlife Services gets out of doing so by stating that only the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has the authority to make decisions regarding how to manage wolves,” she said. “But of course, as a federal agency, Wildlife Services does not have to participate in the request of wolf removal at Game and Fish’s request, and so this seems like a cop-out.”
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna had not reviewed Wildlife Service’s decision memo when reached by the News&Guide, but said that from what he’s heard “there’s nothing terribly negative” about the plan.
“I think if they say that they’re not just going to take wolves in the predatory zone unless they’re doing it because of an impact,” Magagna said, “that makes some sense.”
Prioritizing nonlethal methods of deterring wolves is a reasonable goal, he said.
“I use guard dogs for coyotes with my sheep and have for many years,” Magagna said, “and perhaps that can be an option with cattle and wolves at some point in the future.”