SOURCE: The Billings Gazette, Associated Press
RIVERTON, Wyo. (AP) – Fremont County commissioners are trying to make something clear to lawmakers across the state: wolves are not welcome in their county.
The commissioners voted to reinforce an earlier, controversial resolution declaring wolves as predators.
Predators can be killed at any time and any where.
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The latest action was taken, according to chairman Doug Thompson, to reinforce the county's position with state lawmakers as they grapple with how to manage the state's wolf population.
State Rep. Mike Baker, R-Thermopolis, has drafted a bill that parallels a Wyoming Game and Fish Commission plan that would classify the gray wolf as a predator in some parts of the state and as a trophy game animal in areas around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Trophy game animals can only be hunted with licenses and during specific seasons.
Game and Fish is planning to adopt the plan even if state lawmakers have not passed legislation on the dual classification by Feb. 24, the commission's original deadline.
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Wyoming, along with Montana and Idaho, must have a federally approved management plan in place before the wolf can be removed from the Endangered Species List in the Yellowstone area. Wolves were reintroduced to the state in the mid-1990s.
The Fremont County resolution, passed unanimously at a Jan. 14 meeting, says Wyoming's citizen legislature had, in the past, classified wolves as predators, and says the animals "have historically proven to be detrimental to the health, safety and livelihood" of state residents.
The document says the presence of wolves "will dramatically reduce, and may eliminate, recreational hunting opportunities and subsistence hunting" for local and state residents.
Commissioner Crosby Allen, who drafted the resolution, said Fremont County should send a "strong message about how we feel" to Cheyenne, because a proposed wolf management plan advanced by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department "is taking darts from both sides."
Allen told his colleagues he did some research on the history of wolves in Wyoming before preparing the draft resolution.
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"Between 1897 and 1907, a total of 20,819 bounties were paid on wolves in the state," Allen said. "Because of wolf predation, by 1915, big game species were nonexistent in the DuNoir area, and they didn't recover until 1937. Historical records show that as the wolf declined, big game populations increased."
He said Wyoming's wolves are increasing in numbers by a rate of 29 percent a year.
Allen said wolves will mean the end of elk hunting in certain areas.
But the wolf management coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming takes some issue with Allen's conclusions.
Mike Jimenez of Lander said the wolf population in Yellowstone Park is increasing at a rate of 11 percent annually, while outside of the park the rate is higher, around 20 percent.
Jimenez said a pack of wolves will typically kill 20 elk a month. Inside Yellowstone, a pack usually consists of 10 wolves; outside the park the pack is smaller, from eight to nine wolves.
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"So that is 240 elk per pack per year, or about 24 elk per year per wolf," he said, basing his comments on winter studies of elk in Yellowstone the USFWS and other researchers have done.
But Jimenez said the wolf kill numbers include some elk that would die during the winter whether there were wolves present or not. He said reductions in elk herd size, especially in the northern elk herd, are hard to pin on just wolves.
In Fremont County, Joe Nemick, Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator in Lander, said the best estimate is that there are about 10,000 elk between Lander and the DuNoir areas, with another 500-600 elk in the Jeffrey City area. He said the objective for the Lander herd above town is to maintain a wintering population of about 3,300 elk.
Despite officials attempts to allay concerns many remain troubled about the wolves – including many ranchers.
According to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery annual report, wolves were responsible last year for the deaths of 25 calves, one heifer and one cow.
"That's a minimal number," Jimenez said, "because of the ones we don't find, or don't get reported."
Jimenez urged all ranchers who think livestock has been killed by a wolf to report it immediately. He says it's impossible to confirm a wolf kill – or arrange compensation – without being able to examine the remains.
"When it's something that big, and that recent, you can usually tell what killed it, even if the coyotes have been at it," he said. "The problem is that once wolves are spotted in the area, people start going "Aha!' and suddenly, everything that's missing gets blamed on the wolves."
A nonprofit organization, Defenders of Wildlife, will pay the producer fall market prices for confirmed wolf kills and partial payments for probable kills when wolves are suspected but there is not enough evidence to decide what definitely killed the livestock.
The next step is to prevent any further depredation. Wildlife Services says if all other methods fail, wolves are killed.
"We will continue to remove wolves until the problem stops," Jimenez said.
In the past year, six wolves had to be removed from the population after repeated predation in Wyoming.