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Undecided On Wolves? Hear From A Wyoming Wolf Expert Who Has Seen Them At Their Best, And Worst

A male grey wolf walks through a snowy field in Wyoming. Wyoming has an estimated 311 grey wolves living in the state following their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.
Courtesy Wyoming Fish and Game
A male grey wolf walks through a snowy field in Wyoming. Wyoming has an estimated 311 grey wolves living in the state following their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.

Dan Thompson says he has seen wolves at their best, and their worst.

As the big carnivore supervisor for Wyoming Fish and Game, Thompson has gotten to step within a few feet of a wolf after biologists prepared to tranquilize the animal in a trap.

“Just to see that yellow in the eyes and that little bark and howl, I mean, it kind of penetrates your soul quite honestly,” Thompson said last month from his home in Lander, Wyoming.

But on the flip side, Thompson says he has seen a more unflattering side of wolves.

“I've seen some pretty nasty sheep damage actually, with animals still alive and tore up (by wolves) pretty bad,” he said. “And it's just, it's tough to see. And it's really tough to see landowners and livestock producers have that happen, which is why we have a program in place to deter that as much as possible. But that’s a reality of having wolves on the landscape.”

As Colorado voters prepare to decide whether to bring grey wolves to the state, Capitol Coverage reporter Scott Franz talked to Thompson via Zoom about what it’s like to manage the animals in Wyoming.

Scott Franz: How is managing wolves different than other wildlife already in Colorado, such as bears, elk or moose?

Dan Thompson: It’s unique in that they are a pack animal and they are carnivores, so they kill things and that gets dander up in a lot of people. And so it’s much different than managing elk or deer. Also, the wolf was just federally protected, so we’re under more stringent requirements for what we need to report annually to demonstrate that the population has recovered.

What does it take for Wyoming to monitor its wolf population?

Our primary mode of doing that is putting radio collars out on wolves; that allows us to track them and get a good estimate of the number of wolves we have. We also do a ton of camera work and tracking on the ground. As far as putting collars out, you’re talking about a pretty good chunk of money ever year, from aerial captures.

We have issues of where we have wolves, we have grizzly bears, so there’s a lot more potential for capturing a grizzly bear in a wolf trap. And that’s not something we want to do. So we’ve kind of gotten away from ground trapping exercises. And between those aerial captures and observation flights, that’s a pretty good chunk of money in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A total of $1.9 million was spent on wolf management in Wyoming last year. View a comprehensive report on wolf activity from the state here).

How are the conflicts between wolves and livestock trending in recent years?

They kind of ebb and flow, and honestly the years the wolves were relisted (under the Endangered Species Act), we saw an increase in depredation (livestock killings) as the wolf population grew and management actions were more difficult. For instance, we had 48 confirmed livestock depredations, all but one were cattle in the northwest part of the state. We’ve had as high as just under 150 deaths with cattle. Sheep deaths ebb and flow as well. But what we’ve seen in employing different strategies to decrease this, as well as managing the population, we have been able to decrease those instances of livestock depredation.

Are there any new strategies or technologies being used in Wyoming to prevent negative livestock interactions?

I don’t know how much of it’s very new, but there’s a ton of different methods we employ. A lot of people have gotten really good with having riders out with their livestock. We’ve also done some unique things with like those big rubber inflatable blow up men that you see at used car dealer lots. You put them out in a pasture to just kind of scare away elk and wolves.

Speaking of elk, another thing we hear about in Colorado is the potential impact wolves will have on elk. What impact have they had on elk in Wyoming?

I think the biggest impact has been behaviorally with elk populations becoming a lot more vigilant. The groups of elk might be smaller and more dispersed. There’s still plenty of healthy elk on the landscape, but we do have some areas where we’ve seen some reduced cow/calf ratios in areas where we have wolves and all the other large carnivores present. It’s not wiping them out or anything.

What would you say are the greatest benefits of Wyoming’s wolf population from an ecological perspective?

Obviously, if you can have all the pieces of the puzzle together on a landscape, it’s functioning more as a natural system, so that’s always good. And I think we’re very fortunate in northwest Wyoming to have an intact carnivore guild and all the species present on the landscape that were here a thousand years ago or more in our state. So that’s obviously a benefit.

What are the biggest challenges to managing wolves?

People. Managing the wolf from a biological standpoint I feel is fairly easy. The data we collect on populations is very sound and the science behind it is very sound. But with wolves, the people component cannot be ignored. And the polarity of feelings towards wolves is very extreme. You know, there’s extreme idolatry, there’s absolute hatred. There’s not so much in between when it comes to how people feel about them. And so managing that people component can be challenging at times.

How often are wolves an issue with people?

In comparison with other carnivores it’s a lot less. But we do have issues with dogs. Wolves will go out of the way to kill a dog. Last year we had a pack that actually came out of the (Yellowstone National Park) and it was coming down on a ranch and sneaking in at night being pretty aggressive, killing some chickens.

We don't see as many aggressive behaviors technically with humans and wolves, as we do potentially like you guys have had a lot of black bear issues in Colorado. I know we have some grizzly bear and black bear issues with humans and aggressive behavior. We don't see that as much with wolves, but basically if those wolves become habituated to people, they get more bold and there's that potential for things to go awry pretty quickly.

Dan Thompson is the big carnivore supervisor for Wyoming Fish and Game. He lives in Lander, Wyoming at the base of the Wind River Range.

Wyoming Fish and Game /
Wyoming Fish and Game biologists inspect the teeth of an adult grey wolf.
Wyoming Fish and Game /
Wyoming Fish and Game biologists inspect the teeth of an adult grey wolf.

Copyright 2020 KUNC

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.