Update June 7, 2013: It’s official, the FWS has posted a new rule that would remove protections for gray wolves across the country, except for the Southwest’s Mexican wolf, which would be declared an endangered subspecies.

From the news release: “In the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains, the gray wolf has rebounded from the brink of extinction to exceed population targets by as much as 300 percent. Gray wolf populations in the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segments were removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2011 and 2012. “

From Green Right Now Reports

The second full season of sport hunting took a heavy toll on the U.S. Rocky Mountain Wolves, reducing their population by about one-third, “a level of human-caused mortality that is unprecedented” in the history of the Endangered Species Act, according to wildlife experts.

Wolf Billboards....PredatorDefense.org

A billboard installed outside Yellowstone National Park by Predator Defense.org.

At that kill rate, the wolves could soon be a downward spiral threatening their survival, less than 20 years after being reintroduced into the Northern Rocky Mountain states. That’s according to wildlife proponents, who have been speaking out individually and through a professional society as the extent of the damage to wolves becomes clear.

“If this level of mortality continues or even increases, particularly as states consider increasing quotas and season lengths, recent simulation modeling casts serious doubt on the long-term viability of the population,”  the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) wrote in a May letter to incoming U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The solution, the group said, would be to slow the hunting and re-institute protections for the wolves  across the American West, most parts of which had not yet been re-settled by the wolves before they were delisted  from the Endangered Species Act in 2011 (2012 in Wyoming).

After the delisting, the states inhabited by the wolves were allowed to set up hunting seasons on them.

Wolves decline 34 percent in one year

An estimated 1,674 wolves remained alive in the five-state region of the Northwest after the 2012 hunting season, down from the 2,569 wolves that were “known to be alive sometime in 2012,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its 2013 review of the wolf population.

Hunters killed the majority of the wolves and government game officials shot a smaller percentage of the total,  killing wolves believed to have preyed on livestock, predominantly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the states with the highest concentration of wolves, according to FWS statistics.

The season also saw the loss of some iconic Yellowstone National Park wolves that had been studied and viewed by thousands of tourists. Yellowstone is where the grey wolves were reintroduced in 1994-5, using wolves from Canada. At the time, the gray wolf was virtually extinct in the U.S., except for a long stable population in Northeastern Minnesota and on Isle Royale in Michigan.

The federal government declared the population recovered in 2009, a prelude to their later delisting after court challenges by environmental groups.

wolf baby by Larry Allen

Biologists are worried that the wolves may not withstand the onslaught of hunting, which could disrupt the packs ability to breed.

Some experts have said that number is ridiculously low target; the greater Rocky Mountain area in the U.S. could maintain upwards of 2,000 wolves and as many as 7,000 if certain habitats were restored. 

The federal government, though, has said a contingent of 450 wolves would be sufficient to survive,  intermingle and maintain their genetic viability in the Pacific Northwest.

Biologists have been debating the population goal for years. They successfully helped push the goal up to 450 from the original target of 300. Now, though, they’re worried that wolf goals should be reevaluated in light of vigorous sport hunting and a proposal at the Fish & Wildlife Service to delist the gray wolves in all the U.S. states.

The letter from the mammal society points out that there is still much uninhabited land that’s suitable for gray wolves, especially in Colorado and Utah, and that across the nation only 6 percent of the historic range of the non-Mexican gray wolves is populated with the apex predator.

This year’s past “offtake” of 861 wolves was very high and portends trouble ahead, said Dr. Bradley Bergstrom, a biology professor at Valdosta State University and chair of the ASM conservation committee.

“The prognosis for gray wolves, especially in the Northern Rocky Mountains is uncertain, if they continue to suffer high rates of human-caused mortality, year after year, which is exactly what the states intend,” Bergstrom said.

Hunting impacts ripple through the wolf populations, disrupting even surviving packs, which have lost leaders or breeding adults, he said.

Hunters happy, wildlife experts not so much

Bergstrom points to a 2010 study by Montana State University biologists that predicts the hunting, instead of strengthening the wolf populations as game officials argue, will cause chaos in the highly structured packs and worsen mortality from other causes — creating an “additive” negative effect.

” Using previously published data from 21 North American wolf populations, we related total annual mortality and population growth to annual human offtake. Contrary to current conventional wisdom, there was a strong association between human offtake and total mortality rates across North American wolf populations,” report authors Scott Creel and Jay J. Rotella in their report.

“Human offtake was associated with a strongly additive or super-additive increase in total mortality. Population growth declined as human offtake increased, even at low rates of offtake. Finally, wolf populations declined with harvests substantially lower than the thresholds identified in current state and federal policies ….”

Creel and Rotella are saying the wolves could be easily pushed over the edge by the aggressive hunting quotas and rigorous “controls” imposed by state and federal (Wildlife Services) agents.

Wolf Promo, flickr, CBDiversity

Wildlife biologists say wolves are important top predators who help keep ecosystems in balance.

Their research also suggests that the disruption to wolf packs could increase predation on livestock, as surviving younger wolves turn to easier prey.

Most ranchers, though, welcome the wolves’ decline, seeing it as a way to protect their herds. Wolves were blamed for the deaths of 194 cattle and 470 sheep in 2012 across their territory in the Northwest states, according to FWS statistics.

In the interest of keeping predation to a minimum, the states’ management plans aim to unabashedly reduce wolves to a level where they cannot have much effect on livestock,  and will be pushed into the outback (or into the interior of Yellowstone National Park), where they can feed on their traditional prey of elk.

Once the wolves are confined to suitable habitat, they can replenish their packs every year with new pups, according to the delisting plan.

From the perspective of hunters, trappers and game management, the recent wolf season was a rousing success. The state of Idaho sold 43,246 hunting tags and trappers bought 526 tags. The trapping season proved to be “very effective,” accounting for more than 33 percent of the harvest total, according to the Idaho management update of January 2013.

With so many tags sold, the hunting appears capable of paying for wolf management, though the report notes that monitoring the wolves will become increasingly difficult as radio-collared wolves are shot and killed.

But the hunters’ success has been disheartening to those who want to see the wolves stay firmly established as apex predators in the Rocky Mountain West, or even retain their presence in Yellowstone, which lost at least two resident wolves who left the protected area only to meet with a human with a gun. The dead wolves included the famous female leader of the Lamar Canyon pack., known as 832F.

These deaths, and the proposed new rule to remove any protections on wolves, led wildlife experts at several universities to also write to  the Interior Department, renewing calls to officials to base their decisions on the science, which shows that wolves could rightly populate many wild spaces in the U.S..

“The gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains. The Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the  long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of  these regions, wrote the professors.

Wildlife groups protest zealous wolf reduction plans

The Center for Biological Diversity helped publicize the letter, promoting it on social media. The group has also called out the USDA’s Wildlife Services for what it considers to be aggressive, unprovoked aerial shooting of the Rocky Mountain wolves.

Several other groups have jumped into the fight for fair treatment of the wolves, including the Humane Society of the U.S., which is fighting for a voter referendum to settle calls for wolf hunting in Michigan. (Here’s a blog about why the USHS is getting involved.)

In the past two years, the gray wolves of the Upper Midwest, cousins to those in the Rocky Mountains, have lost their endangered species protections, with both Minnesota and Wisconsin inaugurating wolf hunting seasons, and wolf advocates protesting them.

The pro-wolf groups say there’s no need to “harvest” wolves from biosystems that have been stable for decades, such as those in Minnesota and Michigan. Wolf populations have grown there, but the wolves have also dispersed to other regions as wolves do to maintain adequate territory.

Predator Defense, an Oregon non-profit, also advocates giving the gray wolves wider berth. The group argues that top predators — wolves, bear, cougar — should be left to nature to manage, not hunters, because their populations are self-limiting.

This summer, Predator Defense is taking its message to the tourists who flock to Yellowstone National Park, many of whom hope to see a wild wolf, installing billboards outside the park’s entrances.

“Coming Soon: A world without  wolves? Stop the Killing!” the billboards, providing fodder for discussion as families wait in line.

“Most Americans have no idea wolves are being slaughtered by trophy hunters and trappers,” said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense. “There is no scientific or ethical justification to support the hunting and decimation of wolves or other predator species.  In fact, these actions are contrary to the best available science.”