A proposal to strip gray wolves of their remaining federal protections could curtail their rapid expansion across vast swaths of the U.S. West and Great Lakes, yet the predators already are proving to be resilient in states where hunting and trapping occur.
Thursday’s Interior Department proposal to remove threatened and endangered species protections for wolves would end a decades-long restoration effort that saw a remarkable turnaround for an animal once nearly exterminated across the Lower 48 states. Now more than 6,000 gray wolves live in portions of nine states.
Authority over wolves would revert to state wildlife agencies with no obligation to maintain current numbers. Critics say that amounts to a death sentence for thousands of the animals, shrinking well-established populations and preventing wanderers from carving out new territory.
The track record suggests otherwise in parts of the Northern Rockies, where wolf numbers have not noticeably flagged in the face of aggressive hunting and trapping.
When legal wolf harvests began in Montana and Idaho in 2009, wildlife advocates and some scientists argued their numbers would plummet.
Hunters and trappers have since killed almost 4,400 wolves in the two states, according to data from state wildlife agencies obtained by The Associated Press. About 1,500 more were killed by government wildlife agents and property owners following attacks on livestock and similar conflicts.
But wolves are such prolific breeders that after each hunting season, their numbers bounced back the next spring. That continued even as wildlife regulators loosened trapping restrictions and allowed individual hunters and trappers to harvest multiple animals.
The wolf populations for the two states hovered at around 1,700 animals combined from 2009 through the beginning of 2016, the most recent year with figures from both states.
“We’re almost a decade into hunting and trapping and we still have a population that is robust and well-distributed. It can be done well,” said Bob Inman, a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Wildlife researcher Scott Creel at Montana State University said his examination of population data suggests sustained high harvest rates are pushing wolves near a “tipping point” that would drive the species into decline. State officials said they see no cause for concern and expect the population size to fluctuate.
Montana’s wolf numbers dipped from their 2013 peak over the last several years before increasing in 2017, the data show.
Meanwhile, packs from the Northern Rockies have spread into neighboring Oregon and Washington, where they had been absent for decades. A small number have also taken up residence in California.
Collette Adkins, a Minnesota-based senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, acknowledged dropping federal protections would not drive wolves to extinction, despite earlier saying the proposal “was a death sentence for gray wolves across the country.”