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Hunters in Idaho and Montana killed hundreds of wolves last year, fresh off the animals' congressionally mandated removal from the endangered species list in those states.
Even so, the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population considered by federal biologists scientifically recovered for more than a decade grew slightly, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual report on the population reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s.
The report's release comes the day after Utah wildlife officials revealed the recent sighting of four wolves or wolf-dog hybrids in the mountains east of Springville.
According to Fish and Wildlife, the region's wolves increased by an estimated 123 last year, to a total of 1,774 with 109 breeding pairs, while the two states where hunting is allowed culled 321. Wyoming is working on a plan to satisfy federal officials and win wolf-hunting rights this fall.
"The states showed they're very responsible, good managers," said Mike Jimenez, Fish and Wildlife's science coordinator for the regional wolf population. "They've had public hunts and done well."
Some ranchers and deer and elk hunters potentially in competition with the predators may lament that hunting didn't reduce numbers, he said. But it can take years to make a dent. "Hunting will eventually have an impact."
When it does, federal biologists won't mind as long as it's controlled. The federal wolf recovery goal or lower limit is 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in each of the three states north of Utah.
In the Beehive State, whose northeastern corner is part of the regional recovery zone but has no known breeding pairs, it was a quiet year. After 2010 which saw the state log its first seven confirmed wolf kills on livestock and one problem wolf killed by managers there was no reported activity in 2011 except for unconfirmed sightings.
Here are some highlights from the report:
How many ranch animals did wolves kill?
Federal authorities confirmed 193 cattle losses from wolves last year (six fewer than 2010), with 145 of them roughly split between Montana and Idaho. Wyoming lost 35 cattle, and Oregon 13. Washington and Utah, the other two states with areas in the recovery zone, confirmed no cattle losses. Confirmed losses of sheep throughout the region declined from 245 in 2010 to 162 last year, and authorities said hunting likely helped reduce conflicts. Northern Rockies wolves killed nine dogs.
Did ranchers get compensation?
Private and state agencies paid livestock owners $309,553 for confirmed losses last year.
How many wolves did authorities kill?
"Agency control," which includes legal killings in defense of property, removed 166 wolves last year. Montana killed the most: 64. Oregon killed two. Washington and Utah did not remove any.
Are wolves expanding south into Utah?
The report offers no clarity on this question, just a lull in wolf activity. But Jimenez expects dispersing wolves to keep wandering Utah in coming years, with pack formation always a remote possibility. State wildlife chief Kevin Bunnell said his agency investigated a handful of reported sightings last year, mostly in the mountains east of Springville. This week a coyote-control crew spotted four large canines there, and a capture team will fly the area later this week in hopes of taking blood to confirm whether this is a wolf pack.
What if there is a wolf pack here?
The Northern Rockies recovery zone ends at Interstate 80, and so does the federal willingness to remove wolves. If the four animals spotted in eastern Utah County are wolves, they, like any wolves that may show up in most of Utah, enjoy the Endangered Species Act's full protection. "If wolves establish there," Jimenez said, "we'd work with the state to manage them."
By the numbers
1,774 • Total 2011 population of Northern Rocky Mountain wolves
371 • Livestock and domestic animal losses
321 • Killed by hunters
166 • Killed by managers
$309,553 • Amount reimbursed to ranchers
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service