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The fate of the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) population started and will end with the involvement of humans. During the early 1900's, the wolves were extirpated from many of the western states. This was primarily due to humans expanding out west and the wolves losing their habitat. Another reason that wolf populations have become so dismal is due to farmers killing them when they would come on their property looking for a meal. Due to the fact that many farmers and ranchers perceived the wolf to be a threat to their livelihood because they would prey upon the livestock, many of the farmers and ranchers hunted and trapped these animals almost until extinction. This management plan will discuss the natural habitat of the gray wolf and specific management techniques to bring the wolf back from the brink of extinction. According to Congress, the primary goal of the Endangered Species Act is not to just bring a species back from the brink of extinction, but to allow for that species to be recovered so that the populations can inhabit relatively large areas of suitable habitat within historic range (Defining).
The habitat of the gray wolf was primarily all of the United States and parts of Canada where their numbers reached the millions, but by the 1930's they had been wiped out in many areas of the country. The wolf's range today has been dwindled down to parts of Canada and the following states in the U.S: Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi), which are a relative of the gray wolf, have been found in parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Wolves primarily live, travel and hunt in packs of four to seven. Packs will include a mother and father, which are known as the alphas, their pups and several other subordinate or young animals. The alphas are the pack leaders, which have many jobs to accomplish. They track and hunt the prey, choose den sites and establish the pack's territory. Wolves have been known to develop very close social bonds within the pack and may at times even sacrifice themselves to save the pack. The wolves have a complex communication system which includes barks, whines, growls and howls. The wolves' primary source of food is the ungulates, or large hoofed animals, like elk, deer and caribou. However, they are not above eating smaller prey when they cannot find or kill the larger prey. Many of the smaller prey that wolves will go after will be beaver and rabbits. As a last resort, wolves will resort to scavenging to include eating animals that have already died from starvation or disease.
A pack consists of at least two individuals of the opposite sex that establish territories, breed and produce pups. Wolves normally become sexually mature at 22 months of age. The dominant male and female in the pack produce most of the young; however, 20 - 40% of packs containing two or more adult females produce two litters per year. Breeding typically occurs during February or March, and pups are born after a 63-day gestation period in April or May. Litter sizes in Wyoming have averaged approximately five pups. Pups remain at a den site for about 6 weeks until they are weaned. The pack then moves to home sites until the pups are old enough to hunt with the pack. The pups are usually old enough to hunt with the pack by September or October time frame. Once pups begin hunting, these home sites are no longer used and packs range throughout their territory. Yearlings tend to leave the pack during fall to find a mate and develop a new territory and pack; however, some individuals stay with the pack longer. Members of the pack defend their territory against all new comers, including members of other wolf packs. Territory location is advertised to other wolves through scent marking and howling. Territory size appears related to prey density. The territories of wolves in the GYA average over 250 mi2 and range from 100 to 675 mi2. The typical pack can be from two to 16 individuals and is now assessed to be determined by the size and number of the wolves' targeted prey species. For example, wolf packs in Minnesota that preyed primarily on white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) averaged 7.3 wolves, whereas wolf packs in Alaska averaged 12.1 wolves where moose (Alces alces) were the primary prey species. The average size of the 23 packs in Wyoming outside of YNP in 2006 was 6.7 wolves and 10.5 wolves for the 13 packs inside YNP.
Wolves have a high reproductive potential and populations can sustain moderately high levels of mortality. There are seven wolf populations across the United States and Canada that have seen an increase in population by 29%. Three populations were exploited through a concentrated effort to reduce these populations using a variety of methods of harvesting, while four were unexploited, but yielded similar rates of increase. Unexploited wolf populations may increase anywhere from 28 to 35% annually. Wolves recolonizing northwest Montana increased an average of 22% per yr since 1986. In unexploited populations, wolf density is ultimately limited by prey abundance.
Purpose and Need for a Gray wolf Management Plan
The goal of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is to reestablish a suitable gray wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The northern Rocky Mountain wolf population will be comprised of three recovery areas: Northwest Montana (NWM), Central Idaho (CID), and the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA). The GYA includes all of Wyoming, Grand Tenton National Park and the adjacent parts of Idaho and Montana. The USFWS defines a recovered wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains as one that contains at least 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves, with an equitable and uniform distribution throughout the three states for three consecutive years. A breeding pair is further defined as an adult male and female raising two or more pups in a year. Once wolf populations have met the criteria listed above, the USFWS can petition for them to be removed from the endangered or threatened species list. Once they are removed from the list, the management responsibilities will return to the State in which the wolves reside.
Gray wolf Management Plan Protocols and Techniques
The Gray wolf recovery plan calls for the natural migration of wolves into central Idaho and northwest Montana from existing packs in Canada, but recommended reintroduction of wolves into the GYA due to geographical isolation and the low probability of natural establishment. During this process, recovery areas in northwest Montana, central Idaho, and the GYA were identified. The following criteria were used to select the three recovery areas: presence of an adequate year-round prey base; at least 3,000 mi2 or 7,770 km2 of contiguous wilderness, national parks, and adjacent public lands; a maximum of 10% private land; the absence, if possible, of livestock grazing; and isolation from populated and heavily used recreation areas allowing protection of 15 breeding pairs of wolves from human disturbance.
The state of Wyoming will commit to a gray wolf management plan by maintaining 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves in the northwestern portion of the state including the National Parks and the Parkway. This will include seven of the breeding pairs occupying areas outside the National Parks and Parkway. That state will have no legal authority to actively manage wolves within the National Parks; its management emphasis will be applied to maintaining seven breeding pairs that inhabit primarily areas outside the Parks. Wolf populations in Wyoming will be monitored using whatever techniques are applicable with primary emphasis on extensive radio-collaring, monitoring of those radio-collared individuals and intensive surveys during the winter and denning periods when wolves are most visible. The monitoring program will emphasize existing protocols and techniques that the USFWS and Yellowstone National Park have employed, which have permitted adequate documentation of population status to assess whether recovery criteria have been met.
When wolves are removed from Federal protection under the ESA, it will be necessary for the USFSW Department to monitor the number of breeding pairs residing in Wyoming, regardless of legal classification, and document their distribution, reproduction, and mortality. The Department will be responsible for monitoring these parameters in all occupied habitat outside YNP, the Parkway. The National Park Service will monitor wolves inside YNP. The agencies have already agreed to share information regarding the status of wolves in Wyoming. The Department recognizes the efforts and commitment these agencies have made toward the wolf recovery program, and urges continued Federal funding at or above current levels, so their wolf programs can continue after wolves are delisted. To ensure seven breeding pairs are maintained as described above, the Department will prioritize data collection to determine population status within the data analysis unit. Wolves outside that area will remain classified as predatory animals. Consequently, the Department will use less intensive techniques for monitoring these wolves. The Department will use a variety of techniques including standard and GPS radio-telemetry monitoring to document wolf abundance, distribution, and pack breeding success, and it will coordinate with other State and Federal agencies to assure similar data is being collected so the population's status can be assessed.