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Agents, landowners killing more wolves
New rules, vigilance mean predator survival not as likely
Wolves caught eating what they shouldn't are paying a higher price these days.
A record number have been killed this year in the northern Rocky Mountains for going after cows, sheep, dogs and other domestic animals.
So far, 152 wolves have been shot by government agents or private landowners, about 50 more than last year and an eightfold increase from five years ago.
In Wyoming, one-quarter of all wolves living outside Yellowstone's protective boundary were killed after reports of attacks on livestock.
Wolf managers are taking a more aggressive tack with problem wolves mostly because the population in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho has soared beyond expectation in recent years.
"We've got a recovered population so we're pretty hard on them if they get into trouble," said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There are at least 1,264 wolves in the three states, according to new figures provided Monday.
That's roughly a 20 percent increase over 2005, which is on top of years of steady growth since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.
"I'm surprised we ever got over 1,000 wolves, but in the long term I think it will be less," Bangs said. "I think we're on the top edge of that bubble and it's going to go down."
All three states saw the number of wolves grow in 2006 over the previous year. Montana's total increased from 256 to 300, Wyoming's grew from 252 to about 314 and Idaho's grew from 512 to around 650.
In Montana, the increased numbers reflect more wolves in the northwest part of the state and better reporting on the ground in recent years, said Carolyn Sime, who leads the wolf program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"I feel like the minimum estimates are more realistic now than anything in the last 10 years," she said.
Much of the best wolf habitat, especially in Yellowstone, is filling up. Eventually, as the good spots disappear and it becomes harder to find ample food, the population will dip back down, Bangs said.
So far this year, wolves in the three states have killed 170 cows, 344 sheep, eight dogs, a horse, a mule and two llamas, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The kills - greater for sheep and cattle than any other year - are almost certainly higher than the numbers show because confirming wolf kills can be difficult.
But more wolves have been killed in turn.
The vast majority were shot by agents with federal Wildlife Services. A small percentage were killed by private landowners in Montana and Idaho, which were recently given more flexibility in pursuing wolves that were trying to kill livestock.
Typically, 6 to 7 percent of the wolf population has been culled by "lethal control," as some call it. This year, the rate is around 12 percent overall and 25 percent in Wyoming outside Yellowstone.
"It's still just a small percentage of wolves involved, but when a pack gets into chronic trouble, we get rid of 'em," Bangs said.
A University of Calgary study published earlier this year said killing problem wolves is only a temporary solution to livestock attacks. Once the offender is removed, another eventually moves in to take its place.
"Wolves are being killed as a corrective, punitive measure - not a preventative one," Marco Musiani, one of the study's authors, said earlier this year.
A better approach, he said, is to look at when and where depredations occur and take steps like changing grazing patterns and using guard dogs, fencing, wolf repellants and other measures.
Though wolves grab the attention, their impact on domestic animals is far exceeded by other predators.
Coyotes kill 28 times more sheep and lambs than wolves, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Foxes, dogs, bears and even eagles also rank higher, and that's not to mention weather, diseases and lambing complications.
For losses that are confirmed kills by wolves and grizzly bears, the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife pays the value of the animals lost.
"I think we're looking at a little above average year," said Suzanne Stone, who works out of the group's Idaho office.
The group has paid out $153,930 for wolf kills so far this year, more than $50,000 over 2005.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM Pacific
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