BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies dropped last year for the first time since the animal was reintroduced to the region 15 years ago, federal wildlife officials reported Friday.
The 5 percent drop — to an estimated 1,651 wolves in five states — is set against a backdrop of increasing political pressure to allow more hunting of the predators.
Federal lawmakers from the region want to strip wolves of their endangered status and allow hunters to drive down the population, largely in response to persistent wolf attacks on livestock and big game herds.
Fewer wolves in Idaho accounted for the entire 2010 drop, as wolf numbers increased slightly in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
State and federal biologists attributed Idaho's 19 percent decline in part to reduced monitoring efforts. They said the population overall remains healthy and has recovered from near-extermination early last century, when trappers and hunters killed almost all the wolves in the lower 48 states.
"By every biological measure, the (Northern Rockies) wolf population is fully recovered," the government biologists wrote in Friday's report.
This year's decline, the biologists added, suggests the "wolf population may be stabilizing or even starting a slow decline to some as yet undetermined lower equilibrium, based on natural carrying capacity in suitable habitat and human social tolerance.
Wolves remain on the endangered list largely because of court rulings in lawsuits brought by wildlife advocates. They are concerned that state agencies would be too aggressive against wolves absent federal protections.
Yet even with those protections, wolves are routinely killed in the region following livestock attacks, with 259 wolves removed last year.
Most were taken by federal wildlife agents who use aircraft to track and shoot down problem wolves. Twenty-nine were shot by private citizens in defense of private property.
The number of wolf attacks on cattle was virtually unchanged in 2010. Sheep losses dropped sharply from 721 in 2009 to 245 last year.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.