Given the looming reintroduction, former federal wolf biologist Mike Phillips isn’t surprised that Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials haven’t made much of historically significant North Park Pack animals getting shot up in an area outside of their control.
“If I was Colorado, I’d have plenty to do without getting in a pissing match with the state of Wyoming,” said Phillips, who was a member of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction advisory panel.
Still, Phillips described Wyoming’s practice of keeping the wolf deaths classified as a “sad state of affairs.”
“It speaks to just how irrational people are when thinking about gray wolves,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Controversy around the wolf deaths in southern Wyoming have also fueled calls to federally protect Canis lupus across the species’ range in the West.
“It’s intolerable that Colorado’s invaluable, endangered wolves can be secretly gunned down upon entering Wyoming,” Center for Biological Diversity staffer Collette Adkins told WyoFile in an emailed statement. “This travesty reinforces the need to return federal protections to wolves in Wyoming and across the northern Rockies.”
Adkins’ employer already threatened to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not safeguarding wolves on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming, contending Endangered Species Act violations. But the lawsuit didn’t materialize after the Forest Service informed the advocacy group that there was no evidence of “confirmed gray wolf populations, denning or gathering/rendezvous sites identified” on the national forest.
As Colorado’s wolf population picks up steam in the years ahead, it’s likely that there will be more incidents of dispersed wolves being legally hunted across the northern border in Wyoming. After the Yellowstone and central Idaho reintroduction in 1995 and ‘96, the population of 66 reintroduced wolves grew rapidly, roughly tenfold within six years. Unless the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office reinterprets the statute yet again, exactly how many of Colorado’s newfound wolves meet their end in Wyoming is likely to remain a mystery.
A bill protecting the identity of legal wolf hunters made it through the Wyoming Legislature in 2012 in the aftermath of an Idaho wolf hunter’s identity being posted online, which led to harassment.
There are two applicable sentences in the legislation: “Any information regarding the number or nature of wolves legally taken within the state of Wyoming shall only be released in its aggregate form and no information of a private or confidential nature shall be released without the written consent of the person to whom the information may refer. Information identifying any person legally taking a wolf within this state is solely for the use of the department or appropriate law enforcement offices and is not a public record …”
Until recently, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department did not interpret the statute quite so broadly. Just this spring, for example, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told WyoFile that, “We do know of harvest down in southern Wyoming in the predator area in 2022.”
It’s unclear what changed.
Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King did not specify how releasing wolf mortality data on a regional scale — which the department isn’t doing — would violate the statute. “The Department does not comment on the legal advice we have received,” he said in an email.
Recently retired longtime First Amendment attorney Bruce Moats suspects that the attorney general’s interpretation of the statute runs afoul of the Wyoming Public Records Act and legal precedent, which established that agencies have an obligation to “segregate material, redact exempt material and turn over the rest.”
“I think that applies here,” Moats said. “Why can’t you redact the names?”
The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office did not respond to WyoFile’s request for an interview.
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