Revised Wyoming wolf plan highlights genetic exchangeWritten by Christy Martinez
Casper – According to Wyoming Game and Fish Department Trophy Game Conflict Coordinator Mark Bruscino, Wyoming is on the fast track with its revision of the Draft Wyoming Gray Wolf Management Plan, and he says the plan focuses heavily on genetic interaction of Wyoming wolves with those in surrounding states.
Bruscino spoke in Casper on Aug. 23 at the first in a series of public meetings that aim to encourage public comment for the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to consider at its Sept. 14 meeting
in Casper, where it will vote to approve, deny or amend the revised state wolf plan.
Revisions to the plan came about after Governor Mead initiated discussion with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which led to an agreement reached in July.
If the Commission approves the plan, FWS has agreed to either approve or disapprove the document by Sept. 30. Then, at the Governor’s request, they’ll publish a draft delisting rule, which is expected before Oct. 7, and a 90-day comment period will then be open.
“This coming winter the Wyoming Legislature will have to make some revisions to statute for the proposed delisting to move forward,” said Bruscino. “Then, in Spring 2012, the Commission will have to make some modifications to existing gray wolf regulations in Chapter 21, which designates them as trophy game, and to the draft Chapter 47, which is the gray wolf hunting season, with the intent of potentially hunting wolves in Fall 2012.”
Bruscino said it’s expected that revisions and finalization of the federal delisting rule should be published before Oct. 31. The final rule will become effective 30 days after being published in the Federal Register.
“If they beat that Oct. 31 date, we’ll have time for the Commission to establish a hunting season, but if they run up to the timeline, we may not be able to in 2012,” he added.
The recovery criteria for the wolf includes at least 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, with genetic exchange between the populations, as well as “adequate regulatory mechanisms.”
“FWS has insisted that each state manage for 15 breeding pairs and at least 150 wolves, and that equates to 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation,” said Bruscino. “The reason for the extra five is to provide a buffer – 10 breeding pairs is the absolute minimum before we trigger a potential listing, and they want a buffer so they don’t automatically have to go into relisting mode.”
Wolves exceeded minimum recovery goals in 2002, and in the Northern Rockies there were over 1,650 wolves in 2010.
“That’s a healthy population, and it seems to have leveled off, but it far exceeds recovery goals,” said Bruscino.
“Genetic consideration is key to our plan,” he noted. “There needs to be connectivity between sub-populations in the Northern Rockies, and that language is in the 1994 Environmental Impact Statement, but since then a court interpreted it to mean genetic interchange, because it said something about facilitating genetic flow between populations. The court interpreted it strictly to mean that we have to demonstrate that wolves are making it to these populations and are breeding and exchanging genetic material.”
Although Bruscino says that’s happened since before 2004, when there were 850 wolves in the Northern Rockies, that was also under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, so, to ensure the sub-populations remain genetically connected even after delisting, Wyoming has agreed to seasonally expand the original Trophy Game Management Area so the animals can move across the state line into Idaho.
“FWS insisted that there would be some protections during the time of year when wolves disperse to facilitate interchange with Idaho,” said Bruscino.
The seasonally expanded trophy game area, which includes parts of the Snake River Range, the northern Wyoming Range and Star Valley north of Afton, will experience its seasonal designation from Oct. 15 to the end of February each year.
A few things that remain unchanged from the 2008 draft of the wolf plan are that wolves will be managed statewide under a dual trophy game/predator designation and the public may defend their property within the trophy game area.
“In part of the state, wolves will be classified under law as predatory animals, with no hunting season structure associated or license required,” explained Bruscino. “They can be harvested by any legal method at any legal time. In northwest Wyoming they will be considered game animals and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will manage them mainly through public hunting.”
Regarding the defense of property, Bruscino said people may defend their property – livestock or dogs, for example – from wolves causing damage.
“They can do that immediately, and they don’t need a permit. If the wolf’s in the act, you can kill it, but there is a reporting requirement,” he said. “Agency control of problem wolves will also occur, which is nothing new and is currently happening.”
Changes to the 2008 draft include the rise from seven to 10 breeding pairs and from 70 to 100 wolves in Wyoming outside Yellowstone and Wind River Reservation, as well as a hunting season primarily in the fall, from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, though the Commission has the ability to extend it, if need be.
“We also agreed to shrink hunt areas to smaller sizes to more precisely target the wolf population and to manage almost at the pack level,” said Bruscino. “We’ll also be able to manage more precisely to facilitate gene flow.”
“There’s slight modifications to agency and private wolf control, but most of the abilities to defend livestock and property remain the same,” he said of the revisions, noting that one other change is that a kill permit for wolves that are causing problems used to be good for a year, but that’s been reduced to 45 days, with the ability to reissue.
Damage payments will not apply for livestock killed in the predator area, but Bruscino said they would probably apply year-round in the seasonal trophy game area.
Returning to the focus of genetic exchange, Bruscino said the WGFD will sign a genetics MOU with Idaho, Montana, FWS and the national parks.
“A long-term monitoring effort will be developed to document that genetic exchange is occurring. I don’t think it will be a huge deal, but it will take a lot of effort, and that will include taking samples from as many animals as are harvested, that we find dead or that are live captured,” he stated, noting that Wyoming only has to prove that one wolf makes it over to Wyoming and reproduces every four years. “Currently there are one to one-and-a-half documented per year, so that should not be a problem, but we’ll have to prove it, and that’s the key.”