JACKSON — Wolf hunt area boundaries are being redrawn and quotas boosted because the Gros Ventre area’s elk and Whiskey Mountain’s bighorn sheep are shifting their winter ranges.
In both cases there’s little evidence wolf predation is driving populations down, but wildlife managers believe Canis lupus is a culprit in pushing ungulates off high-quality habitat during the hardest time of year.
Partly due to this predator-prey dynamic, the maximum number of wolves that can be killed is going from nine to 15 in hunt areas that hug the Gros Ventre River. The quota is increasing from six to eight in new, realigned hunt areas that skirt the northeast slope of the Wind River Range, home to the bighorn sheep herd named after the Dubois area’s Whiskey Mountain.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf biologist Ken Mills said it’s “possible” some specific packs may incur heavy losses due to the changes in the Gros Ventre, but he doesn’t expect any packs to be wiped out.
“I don’t think so, not with the pack sizes we have in the Gros Ventre,” Mills said. “One pack might be reduced significantly, but then the other packs around are going to have a much lighter take.”
One Jackson conservationist who successfully hunted a Gros Ventre elk last fall said it’s a wrongheaded approach to boost wolf hunt quotas because prey species are adapting to native carnivores’ presence and moving around.
“I think we should appreciate that predator and prey interaction on the natural landscape instead of trying to artificially manipulate it,” Sierra Club staffer Lloyd Dorsey said.
“If we look more carefully at the behavior of wildlife, there are important messages to learn in terms of how ecosystems could and should be managed,” he said. “Predators moving prey across landscapes are indications of healthy ecosystems, rather than otherwise.”
New hunt areas
The plan for the Gros Ventre’s wolves combines two hunt units, 8 and 9, with a newly created area in the Upper Green River drainage. They’re being managed collectively, with a cap of 15 hunt-killed wolves.
One goal of combining hunt areas up the Gros Ventre is to give hunters more flexibility, Mills said. There were times last year when wolves were off-limits to hunting on one side of the Gros Ventre River, but not the other. On one occasion a wolf roaming a closed hunt zone during the open season on the other side of the river proved too tempting for a hunter, who knowingly poached the animal and tried to sneak it down Gros Ventre Road.
The Gros Ventre’s wolf packs are among the largest in the state outside Yellowstone National Park, according to an annual Wyoming wolf monitoring report.
The Slate Creek Pack was a dozen wolves large at the end of 2017, even after hunters killed five of its members the previous season and two more wolves died from other undisclosed human causes. The Lava Mountain Pack was last assessed at 11 wolves, though that group of animals has recently shifted its home range east from the Gros Ventre into the Upper Green River area.
The Togwotee, Lower Gros Ventre and Kinky Creek packs are also denizens of the river valley and numbered a combined 13 lobos at the end of last year.
Gros Ventre wolves are seen as a major factor in the Jackson Elk Herd migrating out of a valley that has traditionally been a wintering grounds for several thousand elk. Just 86 wapiti were counted this year, the first year on record there’s been an almost complete exodus.
Addressing his commissioners this spring, Game and Fish Deputy Chief of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer said the changes have been “emotional” for his Jackson colleagues, and he encouraged the decision-making board to target more wolves.
He intimated that wolves have driven down the Gros Ventre elk population.
But other Game and Fish officials say the data is not yet in to make that assertion.
“I don’t think we have any strong evidence to say that a lot of elk, or more than normal, have died in the Gros Ventre in the last few years,” Jackson regional wildlife biologist Aly Courtemanch told the News&Guide in March. “And I don’t think we have any evidence that points to a significant population decline up there. We do have evidence that elk are wintering in completely different areas than they used to.”
GPS collar data suggests that elk that once wintered in the Gros Ventre are still kicking, just elsewhere. Some 96 percent of the 62 Gros Ventre wapiti tracked over the past five years returned to their summer and fall ranges. Wolves killed just one of the five-dozen-plus research elk.
Dorsey said he saw the tawny ungulates in abundance on a bike ride up Gros Ventre Road the other day.
“I was pleased to see many elk throughout,” he said. “Almost any direction I looked or glassed I could pick out groups of elk. Some were feeding, some loafing and some purposefully migrating. Impressive.”
Protecting bighorn sheep
A similar situation is playing out on the east side of Togwotee Pass, on the turf of the Whiskey Mountain Bighorn Sheep Herd. Amid a three-decade-long population decline in the sheep herd, the wolves in the area “have become a concern,” Brimeyer told Game and Fish commissioners at the March meeting.
Parts of seven wolf pack home ranges overlap with the Whiskey bighorns’ territory, according to a map he displayed.
“If you look at the distribution of those sheep over a couple winters, it becomes quite apparent that the population has changed its distribution,” Brimeyer said. “The public have voiced some concern about it, and our management has as well.”
Game and Fish created a new wolf hunting area around Whiskey Mountain in response. The state agency proposed a modest increase in the quota in the region, from six to eight, but by carving out a new hunt area it ensures hunters will be able to target no fewer than five wolves south of Highway 26/287. Previously, the hunt area covered both the north and south sides of the highway, and the season could have technically closed only from hunters punching their tags in the Absaroka Range — a ways off from the sheep herd.
Similar to the Gros Ventre, there’s no evidence wolves are devouring the Whiskey Mountain bighorn sheep.
“The sheep are moving to cliff bands and escape cover to avoid predation by wolves, but there’s not been documented predation yet,” Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation Executive Director Steve Kilpatrick said. “The wolves are in the area because there’s a good elk population and a good deer population, but they’re not focusing on the sheep.”
Kilpatrick, once a Game and Fish employee, said he contacted an Alaskan biologist friend who had collared 397 sheep over the years, and learned that just three were killed by wolves.
“In some instances they can localize and zero in on a small sheep herd, but in general sheep know how to effectively avoid wolves,” he said. “But in this case the Game and Fish’s view is this is an already stressed herd, and this is another factor.”
In Wyoming’s managed hunt area Game and Fish has proposed targeting a maximum of 58 wolves, the highest count since the species was reintroduced 23 years ago. On the Yellowstone region’s fringes and beyond, wolves are classified as a predator and can be killed indiscriminately under a plan that enables localized eradication.
The reason for the higher-than-last-year quota, Mills said, is because there are more wolves in the state than Game and Fish desires. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service missed some packs when estimating the population a year ago, and when Game and Fish regained control over wolves it inherited those numbers.
Hunting seasons, in turn, were set at lower numbers than they would have if those packs had been identified, and Game and Fish missed the mark on a goal to drive wolf numbers down to 160 animals in places where the state has jurisdiction.
“I don’t think this season’s more aggressive,” Mills said, “it’s just what it’s going to take to move the population down toward that 160.”
Talk of decreasing the wolf targets nearer the basement-allowable level of 100 wolves and 10 packs was scuttled out of caution, he said, and because of “direction from the governor’s office to not risk it.”
Game and Fish will present its wolf hunting plans at 6 p.m. May 17 in Jackson. Comments are due June 4 at WGFD.Wyo.gov.