CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- A recent survey showing Wyoming's wolf population is stable proves ending federal protections for the animals and placing them under state management was the right move, Gov. Matt Mead said Tuesday.
Mead released a report prepared by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department stating there were at least 306 wolves in at least 43 packs - including more than 23 breeding pairs - in Wyoming at the end of 2013.
Of that total, the report states that at least 95 wolves in at least 11 packs were in Yellowstone National Park. There were at least 12 wolves living in at least two packs on the Wind River Indian Reservation. In the remainder of the state, there were at least 199 wolves in at least 30 packs, including at least 15 breeding pairs.
"This confirms that Wyoming is in the best position to manage its wildlife, including sensitive and high-profile species like wolves," Mead said in a prepared statement.
"Wyoming's wolf population has been over the target number established for taking wolves off of the endangered species list for 12 consecutive years. It was appropriate for wolf management to return to Wyoming," Mead said. "Wyoming continues to play a leading role in managing various species in such a way that they flourish and do not need the protection of the Endangered Species Act."
Wyoming took over wolf management in late 2012 after the federal government ruled wolves no longer needed Endangered Species Act protections. The state has committed to maintain at least 100 wolves including 10 breeding pairs, outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation, to avoid a possible reinstatement of federal protections.
The state classifies wolves outside the trophy area as predators that may be shot on sight. The state also allows licensed trophy hunters to kill wolves in a flexible management zone bordering Yellowstone during hunting seasons. No hunting is allowed within Yellowstone.
Conservation groups are pressing federal lawsuits in Wyoming and Washington, D.C., challenging the end of federal protections for Wyoming's wolves. Wyoming classifies wolves as predators that may be shot on sight in most areas, and hunters have killed scores of wolves since the start of state management.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., heard arguments on that case in December and has yet to issue a decision. The Wyoming case appears stagnant, as there's been no action on pending request from environmental groups to drop their challenge.
Timothy J. Preso, a Montana lawyer, represents a coalition of environmental groups challenging the delisting of Wyoming wolves in the pending Washington case.
Preso said Tuesday that Wyoming continues to have a predator-management approach to wolves in the bulk of the state "that's out of step with modern wildlife management and out of step with the other states in the Northern Rockies, for that matter."
An overall report on gray-wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies, issued earlier this month, concludes wolf populations are showing resilience as states adopt increasingly aggressive tactics to drive down their numbers. The report stated there were at least 1,691 wolves in the six-state region, including Wyoming, at the end of 2013.
Idaho and Montana both manage their own wolf populations and allow wolf hunting. Preso said Idaho in particular has lessened protections for wolves since the federal government ended its protections for them there.
"What we have seen in the Northern Rockies is that having the watchful eye of a federal judge looking over the shoulder of these states appears to make a difference in their wolf management," Preso said.
Preso said his clients maintain that Wyoming's wolf-management approach makes no effort to provide connectivity between its wolf population and populations in other states. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stressed the importance of such contact for wolves' long-term survival.