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Population data: WGFD uses data to set wolf quotas

Written by Saige Albert

Afton – In mid-July, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission met in Afton with a full two-day agenda. Among the topics they discussed, the group looked at wolf populations and possible hunting limits.

Ken Mills, a large carnivore biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), explained that before the agency begins to look at hunting, they analyze population data with cutting-edge scientific strategies.

“The numbers we are using right now are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS),” Mills said. “These aren’t numbers we monitored or counted because we didn’t have jurisdiction over wolves. The numbers we use were from FWS’ 2016 annual report.”

He added, “From here on out, we will be collecting our own data, since Wyoming has wolf management authority.”

Collaring

Mills noted that many citizens allege that wolves aren’t being counted accurately, and he added that WGFD will work to do the best job they can.

“We will be able to do a better job monitoring wolves than FWS, and as we move forward, our numbers will be more accurate,” he said. “Overall, wolves are pretty easy to count, compared to many wildlife species, because they live in a pack, which ranges over an exclusive territory.”

Packs arrange themselves across the landscape, which can be mapped.

“We radio collar wolves in 25 to 30 of the 30 to 35 packs in Wyoming’s trophy game area,” Mills explained. “We can start following those collared wolves and map their territories.”

Collared wolves are also used to locate other wolves in their respective packs, find den sites and count pups each year.

“All of that information in generated from tracking collared wolves,” he said. “Once we lay out the range for collared packs, it’s pretty easy to see where the un-collared packs are. We see geographic holes, so we know that those holes represent packs that aren’t collared.”

Counts

Wolf packs are monitored throughout the year, and pups are monitored throughout the year. At the end of the season, wolves are counted, and Mills explained that WGFD typically has a good idea of pup survival thought the summer.

“We make a sum of all the wolves in the trophy game area, pack by pack, as well as whether they meet breeding pair status, which is a measure of reproductive status, by pack,” he continued. “It’s much easier to calculate wolf populations than bear or mountain lion populations.”

Mills emphasized, “Our monitoring is very intensive and on the same level as we would use for a research project.”

Data for wolf populations has been calculated since wolves started moving outside of Yellowstone National Park, with data points reaching back to 2000.

Management approaches

With population data on hand, Mills explained that WGFD is able to assess how wolf populations would respond to certain management actions.

“If we offer a certain wolf hunting mortality quota, it allows us to predict how the population is going to respond,” he detailed. “For example, the wolf population responds to human-caused mortality different depending on the number of wolves in the population.”

Mills continued, “The more wolves we have, the less food and space is available, which means the wolf population is less resilient because they can’t produce as many pups. There is reduced pup and adult survival when we have more wolves in a population.”

The data is used to calculate what impact human-caused mortality would have and what hunting objective would be ideal.

“We use these pieces of information to determine our population objective. Then, before we calculate mortality quotas, we take off the number of wolves that will die from non-human mortality. The number of wolves left over is how many we may decide to allow to be hunted,” Mills said.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..