PINEDALE — Justin Webb wanted to hear what the seven trappers in the back row made of his pitch.
The Idaho panhandle resident had traveled all the way to Sublette County to promote his organization, the Foundation for Wildlife Management, a 501c3 nonprofit that makes payments to trappers who kill wolves. But two hours in, the stone-faced men had hardly said a word. Webb, the group’s executive director and an avid trapper himself, tried to ease the outdoorsmen gathered in the library conference room into saying something.
“We go to the woods to get away from people, right? That’s what I do,” Webb told the trappers. He made a final appeal. “Speak up, gentleman,” he said. “You came to the meeting. Let me hear what you got.”
The group stayed silent.
Webb’s primary message — that wolves decimate elk, deer and moose populations and limit opportunities for human hunters — has held sway in Idaho and Montana, but not without controversy. State-sanctioned wolf hunting and trapping seasons designed to drive down wolf populations in those states, including at Yellowstone’s doorstep, have made national headlines and triggered lawsuits and Endangered Species Act listing petitions.
Webb’s push to establish a Foundation for Wildlife Management chapter in Pinedale appeared to fall flat. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has walked a wolf-management tightrope for years, some argue, and it doesn’t need groups like FWM upsetting the balance. Wyoming also doesn’t have the problems FWM aims to solve, argue others.
La Barge resident and former Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner Mike Schmid predicted the response.
“I told my wife that I thought this was going to be kind of a dud,” Schmid said of the meeting. “I don’t know how it’s going to fit in Wyoming.”
Webb, meanwhile, said some Wyoming residents do want his services.
“I’m here because there are sportsmen within the state of Wyoming, as well as ranching community folks, that have reached out to us with interest,” he told the Pinedale crowd.
It remains to be seen whether the Foundation for Wildlife Management’s wolf-killing ways will gain traction with Wyoming sportsmen and sportswomen in other communities, but some stakes are already clear. Wyoming wants to continue to manage its wolf population, but incentivized wolf-killing with payments could attract more attention from activists who’d like to see the species relisted, protected from hunting and under federal management.
Private bounties or ‘gold standard’
The decade-old nonprofit’s mission is to help elk, deer and moose herds by reimbursing people for expenses related to wolf killing, and it has conveyed upwards of $1 million for over 1,400 dead wolves in Montana and Idaho. That bounty-like system has drawn scrutiny in Wyoming’s two neighboring states, where there are relatively more wolves and where wolf hunting and trapping seasons have been politicized by state legislatures.
Private bounties for wolf killing are already permissible in Wyoming, but it’s unclear whether Webb’s approach is a good match for how the state manages the controversial native species. Based on state biologists’ reports, Wyoming does not have an overabundance of wolves to kill. Wolves are already classified as predators that can be killed without a license anytime of year in over 80% of the state, where roughly 30 to 40 of the canines are shot and trapped annually. Wolves are classified as trophy game, and managed for persistence, only in far northwest Wyoming. As of this winter, there are only about 160 wolves in that zone, according to Wyoming Game and Fish wolf biologist Ken Mills. (Another 100 or so wolves dwell in Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the state wildlife agency lacks jurisdiction and the species isn’t hunted.)
Like Webb, Jessi Johnson works to conserve elk, moose and deer for hunters, but as advocacy coordinator for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation she thinks Wyoming is already taking the right approach to wolves and doesn’t think the addition of bounty-killing is necessary.
“We absolutely manage to the lower rung [of wolf numbers], and we do that on purpose,” Johnson said. “There’s a reason why we haven’t seen [wolf-killing] legislation like Montana and Idaho.”
Status-quo wolf management, she said, is working, as “unsavory” as the predator zone — where wolves are killed without limit — might look.
“Within the trophy zone, they’re incredibly tightly managed,” Johnson said. “We’ve never even gotten worried about getting too low, or too high. If you would have told me 10 years ago that Wyoming was a gold standard for large carnivore management I wouldn’t have believed you, but I’ve been in other countries and talked to other legislatures, talked to other departments, and I do think that Wyoming’s management is solid.”
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Johnson said, has “no interest” in partnering with Webb and his group.
Groups that aren’t as complimentary of Wyoming wolf management are also leery of the foundation’s bid to establish chapters in the Equality State.
“Increased harvest and method of take in Wyoming’s trophy game management area could push the population below the minimum number of wolves required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Wyoming Untrapped Executive Director Loren Taylor said. “A wolf bounty program with the purpose of increasing wolf killing is not what we need in Wyoming.”
Mills, at Game and Fish, confirmed there’s not a lot of wiggle room remaining in terms of wolf numbers. The population goal in the trophy game area is 160 wolves, he said, which typically corresponds to about 14 breeding pairs.
“And we’re right there,” Mills said. “The [Wyoming] Game and Fish has the most rigorous population monitoring program for wolves in the Lower 48, without a doubt. We don’t generate an estimate, we generate a census. We count them, we map them. We know where there are potential holes, and we know where to look.”
The FWM coalesces around the idea of helping ungulates, the main prey of gray wolves. At the meeting, Webb, and FWM board member Rusty Kramer told lurid stories of coming across uneaten moose carcasses wolves had strewn across the landscape. Wolves have displaced big game from Idaho’s backcountry, they contended, ruining their hunting opportunities.
Big bad wolves
“I’ve got an 18-year-old son that I want to get to experience elk camp in the backcountry,” Webb said. “I want him to sit on a mountaintop on a ridge and listen to bulls bugle below him as the sun comes up, and I believe that if we don’t do something to control wolf populations, he won’t have that experience.”
Webb hails from Idaho, and his anxiety doesn’t match with the elk numbers in most parts of Wyoming. The state’s latest elk population estimate, of nearly 102,000 animals, exceeded the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s objectives by 29%.
“Where we hear complaints and what people are frustrated is with [an overabundance of] cow elk,” Johnson said. “Frankly, taking out more wolves isn’t going to solve that problem, either.”
The timing of Webb’s effort to expand was predicated in part by an upcoming threshold. Wyoming has had jurisdiction over its wolves for five years. During that time the state has been required to closely monitor the population to prove it’s staying true to promises about wolf numbers agreed to when Endangered Species Act protections were lifted.
“Depending on what Wyoming chooses to do, once they get out from underneath the five-year review, will dictate some of how we could be instrumental,” Webb told the trappers.
Opening up a wolf trapping season in the trophy game area — a pursuit that’s currently prohibited — is one policy reform Webb’s group could work toward, he told them. Currently, only wolf hunting is allowed in this zone.
“How on earth do you keep wolf numbers down if you can’t set traps?” Webb asked. “That part is a quandary to me.”
Trappers have about 30% success at killing a wolf in the Lower 48, according to statistics Webb cited, while only 1% of hunters hit their mark.
But Mills, the state biologist, does not see the cessation of the five-year review as cause for major changes in Wyoming wolf management: “I think that’s a really naive point,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already conducting a new status review of the wolf population in the Northern Rockies states as a result of a petition, he said. Subsequent petitions can come from any member of the public at any time.
“The reality is, at any point in time, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has to be able to demonstrate we’re meeting recovery criteria,” he said. “That will not change, because we will always have to be ready to provide the data to respond to a petition.”
Were a Wyoming chapter of Webb’s group to form, one thing that he could do immediately is implement the reimbursement program — something that could happen without changing state law or Game and Fish policy. In Idaho, home to an estimated 1,500 wolves, the Department of Fish and Game has even partnered with the foundation in that endeavor, chipping in $200,000.
The de-facto bounty program — which requires trappers to submit receipts for fuel and other expenses incurred — pays out between $500 and $1,000 per wolf killed, depending on the area.
Trapping isn’t allowed in the trophy game area like it is in the predator zone. But the bounty structure FWM uses, were it applied to hunters, would be legal today throughout Wyoming, according to Dan Smith, the Interim Deputy Chief of Game and Fish’s Wildlife Division.
“As long as the wolf was legally taken by a licensed hunter during a season [in the trophy game area],” he said, “I do not see a reason why they could not put a bounty on that.”
In its initial foray into Wyoming, the Foundation for Wildlife Management has gained some support.
Phil Pfisterer, who presides over the Wyoming State Trappers Association, is a member of the organization and said he believes there are excess unreported wolves out on the landscape that provide justification to kill more animals. He described the Wind River Indian Reservation as a “predator pit” that churns out pups that disperse beyond tribal boundaries.
The foundation’s payments, Pfisterer said, are a “viable tool” to keep wolves in the predator zone in check. But he added that Wyoming’s doing a “wonderful job” of keeping wolf numbers in check under the status quo management.
Webb and Kramer also made their pitch to a congregation of trappers gathered in Riverton this month for a fur sale. Some 30 to 40 people, Pfisterer estimated, heard them out, though none of the trappers jumped at the chance to start a new chapter, he said.
As of Friday in Pinedale, Webb said it’s still unclear whether there’s an appetite for his services in Wyoming.
“I’ll just say this: It definitely takes volunteers,” he said. “If this is going to take place it’s going to be because Wyoming wants [us] here.”