With the wolf population of the Northern Rockies, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, topping 1,000 last year, the wolves' relatively easy recolonization period is largely over.
That's because most of the ideal habitat has now been claimed by wolf packs.
What's left, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs, are fringe areas surrounding wilderness cores and a mix of public and private lands where there will be more opportunities for conflict between wolves and livestock.
"The easy places (to recolonize) are all filled," said Bangs. Young adult wolves are dispersing into national forests that host summer livestock herds and flocks, or into more open agricultural lands where they face the combination of less cover and even more livestock, he said.
That's likely to mean more conflicts with livestock and more predator management activity to scare off wolves, move them from the area of conflict, or kill individual wolves and packs that are preying on livestock, Bangs said.
Meredith Taylor, Wildlife Program Coordinator of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said Bangs' assessment is probably correct, as individual wolves have wandered into Utah, Oregon and Colorado. She believes there is still some suitable habitat out there for wolves - perhaps the Red Desert in southwest Wyoming - places with lots of space, few people and a good prey base in elk and antelope herds.
Jim Magagna, executive director of Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said he "couldn't agree more" with Bangs. Ranchers are seeing more and more wolves, he said. Magagna, who raises sheep in the southern reaches of the Wind River Range, lost sheep to a pack of wolves near Farson last summer, and the pack has since been killed.
Yet wolf conflicts with livestock in the Northern Rockies were down last year from 2004 - a year that saw a spike in livestock losses, particularly sheep, as wolf numbers continued to grow.
(Reports on livestock losses vary widely, depending on who's counting and based on what level or quality of evidence is required for compensation. Everyone agrees that some predation losses go uncounted and uncompensated.)
The private conservation group Defenders of Wildlife pays full market value for livestock confirmed to be killed by wolves and grizzly bears, and pays 50 percent of value for livestock that were deemed probable kills of wolves and grizzlies. The group pays nothing for missing livestock or those that died of unknown causes.
The Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Fund paid $69,286 in 2005 for 77 cattle, 39 sheep and four other animals in livestock losses in the three states. That's half of the $136,838 paid in 2004 for 108 cattle, 442 sheep and nine other animals lost to wolves.
According to the 2005 Wolf Report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists, there were 97 cattle, 244 sheep, 11 dogs and 12 horses that were confirmed as being killed by wolves in 2005. Of the 132 wolf packs in the Northern Rockies, 36 (or 27 percent) were involved in livestock depredation.
Last year, 109 wolves - about nine percent of the population - were killed for preying on livestock .
The greatest threat
In Wyoming, coyotes - not wolves or grizzly bears - are the greatest and most persistent predator threat to agricultural interests. According to statistics compiled by the Wyoming Agriculture Statistics office, predators took 9.8 percent of the 41,000 lost cattle and calves last year. Of the 4,000 cattle and calves supposedly lost to predators, 2,200 were taken by coyotes - a little more than half of the predator total. In decreasing order, the next most damaging predators were wolves (600), mountain lions (500), grizzly bears (300) and black bears, eagles, wild dogs and other predators (tied at 100 each).
Yet predators are small potatoes within the larger scheme of basic animal husbandry issues. Greater losses are attributable to cattle digestive problems (14.7 percent), respiratory problems (21.3 percent), weather (18 percent) and calving (25 percent).
It is true that coyotes hammer hard on sheep and lambs, which are much more vulnerable to predation than cattle and calves. In 2004, sheep and lamb losses in Wyoming totaled 55,000 animals, of which 55 percent - 30,000 - were due to predators. Coyotes took 19,700 sheep and calves or 35.8 percent of the total loss. While all livestock losses totaled $4.33 million, predation cost the sheep industry $2.21 million or 51 percent of the total.
(In marked contrast, look at Minnesota's experience with wolf predation on livestock. Minnesota has 3,020 wolves, and in 2004, 105 wolves were killed for preying on eight cattle, 58 calves, 15 sheep, 101 turkeys and four dogs. Minnesota has a huge deer population, which provides most of the wolf population's food.)
Bangs said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had originally predicted a 10 percent annual wolf removal rate, anticipating that high a conflict between wolves and livestock.
"On average, it has been running about six percent a year," he said, rising last year to nine percent.
It'll be several months before wildlife biologists can tell what kind of reproductive success the packs have had this spring, but most biologists expect a normal crop of wolf pups.
Bangs said he'd be surprised if the Yellowstone packs took another hard hit from canine diseases, as they did last year when only 22 of 69 pups survived.
Doug Smith, the wildlife biologist in charge of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, said the Yellowstone wolf population sustained a 30 percent decline - from 169 to 118 wolves - mostly due to the loss of so many wolf pups to canine diseases.
Yellowstone's northern range wolf population is down 50 percent in the past two years, from 100 to 50, said Smith. He said the population of the packs in the park's interior is more stable.
Canine diseases, such as mange or parvo, can become endemic, Bangs said, but are not usually fatal in and of themselves. "These are mortality agents that are triggered by other stressors," he said.
For example, mange is caused by a tiny mite burrowing under the skin, causing skin irritation, hair loss, lesions and scabs. When there are other stress factors, mange can weaken immune systems, cause hypothermia due to hair loss and set up the animal for secondary infections.
Canine diseases crop up and become important every few years, said Bangs, then seem to go away for awhile, but are always present.
Smith said he anticipates that Yellowstone wolves will "get a bounce-back" effect with higher survivability among the pups.
"Two years ago, we had 174 wolves in 16 packs," said Smith. "We won't see that again." He expects that the northern range packs will stabilize about where they are now, yet the situation remains fairly dynamic, said Smith. For example, the Firehole area is alternating between three and two packs, with Smith expecting one consolidated pack when the dust settles. Similarly, the Nez Perce pack is scattered, and the Gibbon pack's numbers are down, but those two packs may merge, he said.
Brodie Farquhar is a freelance writer living in Lander, Wyoming. He is the contributing editor to the Yellowstone Journal.