Northern Rockies wolf population has stopped growing

Increased mortality brings an end to wolf population growth at about 1650 wolves-

Sean Ellis of the Idaho State Journal deserves some credit for digging out the information.

Wolves resilient: Total number in region stable despite hunting. By Sean Ellis.

Now perhaps all sides should just call it even? Doesn’t look like it.





  1. steve c Avatar
    steve c

    How can they claim the population is stable when we don’t know the effects of the hunt? Is the current population really even known?

  2. gline Avatar

    Isn’t this a bit too soon to decide the population is “stable”? The hunt is extended until March in Idaho…

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    The official count is at the end of 2009. Every year it continues to decline after that until the pups are born in April.

    This year the decline between Dec. 31 and March 31 in Idaho will be increased. Then too, we don’t know if Wildlife Services is still going to gun down their now 25 “chronically depredating wolf packs in Idaho.” That could be 200 wolves.

    In Montana after the hunt was over, they quickly killed 22 wolves just like that for supposed livestock depredations.

    On the other hand, wisdom could prevail. If they want to fight, however, I’m more than damn ready.

  4. spanglelakes Avatar

    According to Ed Bangs, wolves are killed by trains? How many might that be, Ed?

    Population stable? No, wolf population under assault. Killing spree by hunters, Wildlife Services, ranchers.

    Here in Idaho, IDFG has repeatedly said that for every big game animal legally “harvested”, an equal number are poached. And, for every deer or elk that is shot or hit by an arrow, 20-30% “escape” and are not recovered by hunters.

    So, tonight – IDFG reports 135 wolves murdered by wolf hunters. Anti-wolf websites have been advocating to gut shoot wolves and not report wolf kills.

    If 135 wolves have been reported, given the anti-wolf sentiment in Idaho, that at least 135 wolves have been shot and not reported. (270 wolves). Another 20-30% were shot at and not recovered.

    Add in the over 100 shot by Wildlife Slaughter Services (Wildlife Services), and another nearly 50 killed by misc causes (ranchers, roadkill, poison, etc). The Idaho wolf mortality figure is at least at 460 and increasing daily.

    I don’t see anything “stable” about wolves in ID or MT, they are being shot and killed and being treated like vermin by the state agencies who unfortunately are in charge.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    The first wolf has been shot in the Southern Idaho wolf hunt zone. Because these are probably disperser wolves this far south, the details will probably be pretty irritating.

  6. Dave Avatar

    We should keep in mind that the Idaho wolf-hunting season won’t be over until the end of March. This means that pregnant females will be fair game, which could significantly affect pup recruitment in 2010.

  7. izabelam Avatar

    yeah..hunting pregnant females is such a macho thing…
    I killed a wolf and she was I am a hero in local bar..

  8. John T. Soine Avatar
    John T. Soine

    Ralph, what is the wolf carrying capacity of Idaho and Montanas wilderness area. I’m sure it is much more then 1650. Northern Minnesota alone has more then twice that number and still the deer population increases.


  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Dave, Isabelam, Mark Gamblin and all

    I’ve been thinking about the impact of the wolf hunt on wolf pack structure . . . where there were large packs, there will be many small packs.

    Small packs lose more meat to scavengers than large packs.
    – – –
    Does anyone remember the definition of a breeding pair of wolves? A state has to retain ten breeding pairs to keep the wolf delisted.

    Mark Gamblin, can Idaho Fish and Game prove that even ten breeding pairs still exist in Idaho without cheating on the definition of a breeding pair?

    Inquiring minds will want to know.

  10. Mark Gamblin (IDFG) Avatar
    Mark Gamblin (IDFG)

    Ralph –
    Catching up again. I want to discuss this with wolf management staff. I’ll respond as soon as I have a thorough answer.

  11. Eric T. Avatar
    Eric T.

    “A state has to retain ten breeding pairs to keep the wolf delisted.”

    Ralph: I thought you and other contributers to this site didn’t know of or subscribe to this “deal” re: 10 breeding pairs.

    Eric T. I don’t, but it’s the law. I hope I explain further down. Ralph

  12. Cris Waller Avatar

    “Does anyone remember the definition of a breeding pair of wolves? ”

    As I recall, it’s a pair with two surviving young of the year in December.

  13. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse


    Definition: “breeding pair” – an adult male and an adult female wolf that have produced at least 2 pups that survived until December 31 of the year of their birth, during the previous breeding season.

    As quoted in the April 2, 2009 delisting rule [See 74 FR 15123 at p. 15130, bottom of column 3]

  14. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Wilderness Muse,

    You are exactly right.

    It’s not a group of wolves that hang together. It isn’t even a group of wolves with an alpha pair if one of the pair has replaced an earlier wolf that was, let’s say, shot that year.

    In addition, if folks will check Dr. Mech’s web page, he tells us the term “alpha pair” is no longer the current best science about wolves. It should be replaced by the term “breeding pair.” This makes the centrality of a breeding pair even greater now than when the rules regarding wolf delisting were written.

  15. Cobra Avatar

    I would be willing to bet that there are at least 5 breeding pairs just in North Idaho. That’s not counting the wolves from I-90 south to the st. Joe divide which has at least 2 packs with pups and the St. Joe river drainage that has a fair number of wolves also. I don’t know what’s going on in central or southern Idaho but they seem to be holding their own pretty well up here. Of course up here we don’t have the livestock so W.S. doesn’t have the need to fire up the big bird.
    On another note. A Mullan womans dog was getting attacked by a wolf by her home so she grabbed a shovel and beat the wolf until he took off, maybe all you need is a shovel for wolf management.

  16. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse


    Just thinking out loud, here. FWS tends to use the phrase ” X breeding pairs and 10X individual wolves.” But at lower numbers they use the phrase “x breeding pairs and 15X wolves. So, in order to reach a minimum goal of 10 breeding pairs this would equate to 150+(15X) wolves. And, on the low end of the range, it could mean 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves (10X). Examples of the numeric relationship and range are used in the delisting rule.

    If I understand where you I think are going with this, Ralph, the disruption (say hunting harvest, WS takes, or a parvo incident) of a “breeding pair” (1M + 1F that breed + 2 pups from that union surviving from birth to 12/31), would affect the numeric relationship between pairs and numbers of wolves. After a hunter harvest season, for example, 10 breeding pairs may not be found in a population of 150 wolves. It may be a larger number, and depending on the highly specific demographics of the hunting harvest and other sources of mortality of the “breeding adults” and pups in that family unit, the relationship between x breeding pairs would mean many more wolves total.

    And, determining this changed relationship can only be done, after the fact – at a future point in time, after the next batch of pups that survives to 12/31/2010, when the “breeding pair” analysis can be performed.

    This presents interesting data gathering challenges in a dynamic population with hunter harvests. The total number of wolves must be estimated, and the genetic lineage must be determined. So, for example, if pups born this next breeding season (and which survive to 12/31), of a Male which does not survive (say is killed in a late harvest but after impregnating the Female) the breeding unit does not count, but their live number contributes to the total number of wolves. This is not to say that other wolves will not step up to be the breeders of a pack (can’t tell until the next counting cycle), but it does create problems for the technical definition of “breeding par.”

    Am I on track?

    One would hope both ID and MT did some population modeling and have enough cushion in their harvest goals to account for this issue.

  17. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    The cushion is the 500 number.
    The state is assuming that that will be a cushion to account for all negative variables on the population.
    Recall that the very most important #1 parameter set out in the state management plan is to keep wolves from being re-listed.

  18. Wilderness Muse Avatar
    Wilderness Muse

    Jeff E

    That would be my conclusion, as well.

    The quick analysis was to address the complexity of “breeding pair” as it was redefined in 1994, in the EIS for the NRM. Breeding pair back in 1987 was defined as “2 wolves of opposite sex and adequate age, capable of producing offspring.” Very big difference between the two and how one goes about determing them.

  19. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    yes, and one can also see the progression of thinking in the state as they went from “recovery levels” (100+ population), to minimum of 15 breeding pairs, to today’s 500+ population.
    Curiously the 500 figure showed up shortly after the major, thought to be parvo, outbreak in Yellowstone that wiped out nearly all the pups in 2005. Remember the other half of the equation is POY surviving until the following December. It is also going to be interesting to see how many pups die that are born in late March as the parent(s) are shot or driven off the den.

  20. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    …not to mention the females that are within days or less of whelping. More bang for your buck I suppose

  21. JB Avatar

    Very interesting thought, Ralph!

  22. Jay Avatar

    “Alpha” pair is an archaic term coined back in the early years of wolf research (40’s) when a pack was misunderstood to be a randomly assembled group of wolves that fought for position within the social hierarchy. Hence the alpha, beta….omega, etc. Pack structure is better understood now as a breeding pair and previous years’ offspring.

  23. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    yeah..hunting pregnant females is such a macho thing…
    I killed a wolf and she was I am a hero in local bar..

    Isabelem, I have heard that mentality with coyotes so I’m sure it’s the same with wolves. This Christmas I found out just how ignorant some of my family members are about wolves. They think it will be a matter of time before wolves descend into town and start preying on people. Nice to be around some people with reason again. 🙂

  24. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Jeff E.

    This is my first activity on the blog today. I have been otherwise occupied.

    I do think that is what Idaho called for keeping 500 wolves, more than would seem the minimum — difficulty proving the existence of actual breeding pairs, as the term is now legally defined.

  25. Mark Gamblin (IDFG) Avatar
    Mark Gamblin (IDFG)

    Ralph –
    “…. can Idaho Fish and Game prove that even ten breeding pairs still exist in Idaho without cheating on the definition of a breeding pair?

    This discussion will balance on what you mean by cheating on the definition of a breeding pair and if that has relevence to a legitimate count of wolves for ESA purposes.
    Expanding on the USFWSdelisting decision document that WM quoted from:

    15124 Federal Register / Vol. 74, No. 62 / Thursday, April 2, 2009 / Rules and Regulations

    “…Pack social structure is very adaptable
    and resilient. Breeding members can be
    quickly replaced either from within or
    outside the pack and pups can be reared
    by another pack member should their
    parents die (Packard 2003, p. 38;
    Brainerd et al. 2008; Mech 2006, p.
    1482). Consequently, wolf populations
    can rapidly recover from severe
    disruptions, such as very high levels of
    human-caused mortality or disease.
    …Based on our analysis, we redefined a
    breeding pair as an adult male and an
    adult female wolf that have produced at
    least 2 pups that survived until
    December 31 of the year of their birth,
    during the previous breeding season.
    …We measure the wolf recovery goal by
    the number of breeding pairs as well as
    by the number of wolves because wolf
    populations are maintained by packs
    that successfully raise pups. We use
    ‘breeding pairs’ (packs that have at least
    an adult male and an adult female and
    that raised at least 2 pups until
    December 31) to describe successfully
    reproducing packs (Service 1994, p.
    6:67; Bangs 2002, pp. 7–8; Mitchell et al.
    2008). The breeding pair metric
    includes most of the important
    biological concepts in wolf
    conservation. Specifically, we thought it
    was important for breeding pairs to
    have: Both male and female member
    together going into the February
    breeding season; successful occupation
    of a distinct territory (generally 500–
    1,300 km2 (200–500 mi2) and almost
    always in suitable habitat); enough pups
    to replace two adults;
    Often we do not know if a specific
    pack actually contains an adult male,
    adult female, and two pups in winter;
    however, group size has proven to have
    a strong correlation with breeding pair
    status (Mitchell et al. 2008). Research
    indicates a pack size of around 9
    equates to one breeding pair (large packs
    have complex age classes—pups,
    yearlings and older adults). In the
    future, the States may be able to use
    pack size in winter as a surrogate to
    help reliably identify each pack’s
    contribution toward meeting our
    breeding pair recovery criteria and to
    better predict the effect of managing for
    certain pack sizes on wolf population

    From Jon Rachael (State Wildlife Manager): “During the course of the summer and fall 2009 we confirmed (visually) reproduction in 59 wolf packs in Idaho. We confirmed that 47 of those packs had produced at least 2 pups. Using radio telemetry as an aid to locate those packs, we will focus on getting complete counts of those packs, and other wolf packs and groups, now that we have snow on the ground. Our efforts during our December and January flights will confirm total numbers of wolves surviving in those and other packs as of the end of the year AND in most cases we can still detect size differences between adult wolves and pups-of-the-year so we will confirm that at least 2 pups survived through the end of the year.”

    Answer – Yes, we can confirm that at least 10 breeding pairs that have produced at least two offspring remain in Idaho. We will undoubtedly confirm substantially more than 10 such wolf pairs in the state. As the USFWS notes in their delisting decision document, the criteria describes a pack with a breeding pair and at least two offspring that survive until December 31 – for biological relevance to the question of wolf population stability. It is not the breeding pair (not alpha pair – breeding pair) that matters. It is the pack. One or both of a breeding pair are routinely lost to a pack from a variey of mortality agents, humans among others. As the USFWS emphasizes above, pack structure is very resilient. Packs very quickly replace breeding indivuduals or pairs and simply move on.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan