The War Over Wolves

Rocky Mountain state wolf management has shown itself to be based in large measure on politics, not science.

The War Over Wolves

Western wolf management remains controversial as populations increase. Photo:

When I lived in Alaska during the 1990s, I was involved in the politics of hunting. At a meeting one time, a highly successful New York advertising executive — he created the famous “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” Speedy Alka Seltzer campaign in the early 1950s — told us why Alaska had an “image problem” when it came to wolves and wolf hunting. “We all know what wolves are,” he said, “apex predators that can decimate ungulate and sheep populations in short order. What nonhunters living outside Alaska hear from the anti-hunting groups is that the wolf is nothing more than a cuddly big dog, not unlike Fido, and that wolf hunters are uneducated backwoods savages. Their No. 1 fundraising strategy is to send a picture of a wolf with a plea to ‘help stop the slaughter.’ And it works, big time. As hunters, we need to remake that image and educate the general public not already in the crazy anti-hunter camp about the truth.” 

Some things never change. Modern wolf management out West remains highly controversial with the general population, and a highly successful way for anti-hunting groups to line their pockets with donations from the uneducated.


A Brief History

By the middle of the 20th century, government-sponsored extermination had wiped out nearly all gray wolves in the Lower 48 states, with the last Western wolf pack killed inside Yellowstone National Park in 1926. Only a small population remained in northeastern Minnesota and Michigan. In 1974, the gray wolf was listed as endangered, recovery was mandated under the Endangered Species Act and in 1975 the long process to restore wolves in Yellowstone began. Then, in 1991, Congress appropriated money for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for wolf recovery, with the EIS completed for wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1994. More than 160,000 public comments were received — the largest number of public comments on any federal proposal at that time. Then in 1995 and 1996, 31 gray wolves from western Canada were relocated to Yellowstone. 

Despite assurances from the pro-wolf crowd, wolves almost immediately began traveling outside the park’s boundaries and began preying on local sheep and cattle, as well as ungulates. From 1995-2003, there were 256 sheep and 41 cattle confirmed to be killed by wolves. In 2005, wolf management was transferred from the federal government to the states of Idaho and Montana, and in 2008, with wolf populations increasing rapidly, the gray wolf populations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were first removed from the Endangered Species List, then returned to the list. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) again delisted wolf populations in Montana and Idaho, but not in Wyoming. A legal challenge resulted in the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population being returned to the federal EIS. 

In 2011, wolf populations were again delisted in Montana and Idaho by action of Congress, and the USFWS proposed delisting wolves in Wyoming, which occurred in 2012. But in 2014, wolves were relisted in Wyoming. Finally, in 2017, wolves were delisted in Wyoming; currently the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population is no longer listed. 

The reason they are no longer considered “endangered” is that their population growth has far exceeded original estimates and plan goals. Back in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the Rocky Mountains wolf population at over 1,600. Organizations opposing proposed wolf hunts wanted populations upward of 5,000, even though biologists argued that was way too many for the ecosystem. Fast forward to August 2021, when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimated that 1,543 wolves roamed the state — a number in line with estimates from the previous two years. This estimate is 443 animals larger than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) 2009 delisting rule that called for 1,100 wolves across the entire northern Rockies — meaning Idaho’s population alone would meet objectives for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined.

Prior to wolf introduction in the mid-1990s, Idaho and Montana both committed to maintain at least 150 wolves. The latest figure puts Idaho’s wolf population more than 900 percent above minimum recovery levels. Montana estimated its 2020 wolf population at 1,177 animals — nearly 700 percent above minimum recovery levels. In 2021, Wyoming estimated its wolf population at 327 animals — roughly 230 percent above its minimum recovery goal.


Wolves’ Effect on Ungulates

Despite what many anti-hunters tell you, the reintroduction of wolves into the northern Rockies has had a detrimental effect on ungulate populations in general, and elk, moose and deer in particular. When discussing elk populations inside Yellowstone Park, even the National Park Service — not known as being particularly hunter-friendly — states on its website that, “So far, data suggest wolves are contributing to decreased numbers of elk calves surviving to adulthood and decreased survival of adult elk. Wolves may also be affecting where and how elk use the habitat.” 

No kidding. Throw in a growing grizzly bear population, as well as black bears, cougars and coyotes, and it’s no wonder ungulate numbers are getting hammered. And while many factors contribute to ungulate population fluctuations — harsh winters being a big one — according to The Wildlife Society: “In the 1990s, the Yellowstone elk population prospered, reaching about 20,000 individuals. With the reintroduction of gray wolves in the park, however, the elk population has fallen over the years.” With that decline came a reduction in elk hunting opportunities outside the park. For example, a highly popular late-season elk hunt held just outside Gardiner, Montana, that once issued permits for upwards of 1,000 elk each year was eliminated in 2011 to help protect the dwindling herd. That’s a huge loss for sportsmen.


Western Wolf Hunting Truths

Wolves are almost the perfect predator. They’re big, strong, tough and smart. They cover huge swaths of territory in short order, and are here today, gone tomorrow. They hunt in packs, and their advantage in numbers makes it easy for them to wear down large prey animals. 

In terms of hunting them, success rates are ridiculously low. Despite legal challenges, Idaho and Montana’s first fair-chase wolf hunting seasons occurred as scheduled in 2009. Montana set a statewide quota of 75 wolves, believed to be about 15 percent of the population, while Idaho set a statewide harvest quota of 220 wolves. Thousands of wolf tags were sold, and animal rights groups were terrified that hunters would easily surpass these quotas on day one. In Idaho, just two wolf kills were reported on opening day; in Montana, just one wolf. Montana officials closed wolf hunting after about two months, after 72 wolf kills were reported. Idaho extended its wolf hunting season before calling it quits in March 2010, with 188 wolves killed, far less than the statewide quota. Neither state allowed trapping that year. 

The truth about wolf hunting is that unless they are trapped, success rates are abysmally low. Even in Alaska and western Canada, most wolves that aren’t trapped are harvested opportunistically, meaning hunters with tags aren’t targeting wolves, they just run into them while out hunting other species. In December 2021, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever told the state’s lawmakers that killing a large percentage of the state’s wolf population would be extremely difficult. “I think there are a whole bunch of us that would be happy if we could get to what’s described in the federal delisting rule as a population fluctuating around 500,” Schriever said. However, getting there could be challenging because wolves get very wary when hunted, he noted. As an example, he gave a breakdown of 389 wolves killed in 2022 by some 50,000 hunters and trappers, noting only 72 hunters and trappers killed more than one wolf, accounting for 236 wolves in all that year.


Aggressive State Management

Despite continued campaigns against wolf hunting by animal rights groups — remember what “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” told us 30 years ago in Alaska — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are aggressively allowing wolf hunting. Liberal bag limits, long seasons and, in some cases, bounties on wolves killed by either hunting or trapping, are backed by state ranchers and cattlemen’s associations. For example, in 2021, Idaho wildlife officials made available $200,000 to be divided into payments to hunters and trappers who kill wolves in the state. 

Here’s a quick look at wolf hunting opportunities in the northern Rockies. 

Idaho: Several units of the state are open year-round, with no daily bag limit. Also, nonresident hunters can use an unfilled nonresident deer or elk tag to harvest a gray wolf during the open season corresponding to the deer or elk tag hunt area or unit when gray wolf season is open. Wolf tags purchased with a hunting license are valid for the calendar year. Wolf tags purchased with a trapping license are valid for the trapping year, July 1-June 30. A person must attend a wolf trapper education class and have a valid trapping license before attempting to trap wolves. Hunters and trappers must report kills so the state can monitor harvest statistics. For more information visit 

Wyoming: In northwest Wyoming, the gray wolf is designated as a trophy game animal; here they may be hunted with a license per the current regulations. There is also a trapping season in the trophy area, and this area has limited quotas and season dates. In the balance of the state, gray wolves are designated a predatory animal, which, like coyotes, means they can be killed without a license all year. All wolf kills must be reported to the game department. For more information visit

Montana: Wolf hunting is allowed during three seasons: archery, general and trapping. An individual can take up to 20 wolves, with no more than 10 taken through either hunting or trapping. A separate tag is required for each wolf killed through hunting. For trapping, only a trapping license is required. There’s a statewide quota for each region, with hunting closed in a specific region if the quota is reached. For more information visit


Wolf Expansion

The gray wolf is slowly expanding its range outside the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, with wolves now found in limited areas of Colorado, eastern Washington state, Oregon and even northern California, where inevitable conflicts with ranchers and reductions in ungulate populations are occurring. 

The antis love the wolf, just as they love the grizzly bear and cougar. In 1990, when California passed Proposition 117 that effectively banned the hunting of mountain lions, I sat in a courtroom next to Wayne Pacelle, at the time a staffer for Cleveland Amory’s Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); Pacelle would later lead that anti-hunting group. He told me that one of their strategies to end hunting was simple. “We’re going to introduce apex predators into the Yellowstone ecosystem, and they will get all the ungulates, not you hunters,” he said. I thought he was nuts, but his words have come true. As apex predators — particularly wolves — continue to decimate ungulate populations, sport hunting opportunities have been greatly diminished in many areas. As the wolf expands its territory, expect more of the same.


The Sportsman’s Alliance

Easily one of the top pro-hunting groups when it comes to following the effort of anti-hunters and legislation affecting hunters, anglers and trappers is The Sportsmen’s Alliance. I’ve been a fan and supporter since the group was called The Wildlife Legislative Fund of America. SA’s Brian Lynn was a great help in researching this article. This organization stands tall for all sportsmen — especially trappers, hound hunters and predator hunters, groups often overlooked by more mainstream organizations. Check them out at They’re worthy of your support. — Bob Robb.


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