On March 14th, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the removal of wolves from the federal endangered species list but it won’t protect wildlife or ranchers in western South Dakota.
Montana now boasts 653 wolves, a 15% increase in a single season even with a 165 wolves taken during the hunting season. Montana had a quota of 220 wolves but failed to reach that target. Officials are considering changes in the current regulations to allow hunters to harvest more than one wolf at one time in order to actually reduce the numbers of wolves in the state to a target of 440 animals. Montana is also considering changing its fines for illegal harvest by cutting the current fine of $4000 by 75%. Neighboring Wyoming is home to 250 more animals in 34 packs even after 58 were killed during the year. Minnesota estimates 500 packs with 3,000+ individual wolves.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service released data on current wolf populations. Litters average from four to seven pups. Wolf dispersal from existing packs varies from fifty up to five hundred miles. Packs range in size from 3 to as high as 37 animals. In Yellowstone, today, there are packs that specialize in the killing of Bison. Imagine a pack of 140 pound wolves taking up residence in Western South Dakota. Since we don’t have wild bison, wolves might be tempted to hunt some of our private herds. Since South Dakota has the largest number of privately owned bison in the nation, it would seem that we might attract some wolf attention. Depredation evidence from these states also indicates that some sheep, horses and cattle might be lost.
If you explore online images, you will see wolves defending their home ranges from other predators. There are images of five wolves running down and killing a coyote as it tried to steal part of their kill. Look further and you can see stories of wolves attacking and killing mountain lions. I even saw a video of a wolf targeting and killing a young black bear.
Wolves didn’t need to kill the lions, coyotes, or bears. One wonders. Were they trying to protect their hunting grounds or ensure that their future kills weren’t scavenged? Were they trying to defend young that weren’t even threatened at the time? The wolves didn’t even eat the other predators that they killed. After reading the letters to the editor on this year’s lion season, do any of these comments sound familiar?
There is no doubt that wolves are coming to South Dakota. They have proven themselves resilient to hunting pressures in surrounding states and are still managing to expand their territories. There are very few areas either side of the river that don’t lie within the five hundred mile range of existing packs and several packs exist within two hundred miles of our state line. The recent sightings of wolves and the killing of a Minnesota wolf near Custer this winter have put our state biologists on notice. The new federal ruling will allow state management in Wyoming and in eastern South Dakota, but leaves west river ranchers unprotected.
Wolves hunt and kill for many of the same reasons that people do; to feed their pups, to defend their territories, and sometimes for entertainment. I doubt that those who do not hunt will be as vigorous in striving to prevent wolves from hunting lions as they have been in their efforts to prevent other humans.