Montana’s wolf population has decreased by as many as 300 animals since the state instituted an annual hunt, but biologists monitoring the species believe the number may be stabilizing.

That’s according to the newly released Montana Gray Wolf Program Annual Report from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

At the end of 2017, the report says, “FWP confirmed the presence of at least 124 packs, 633 wolves, and 63 breeding pairs in Montana.”

That number, the agency believes, is a minimum.

The department’s official 2017 population estimate won’t be released until later this year, but the preliminary count marked a decrease from FWP’s estimates of 961 wolves in 2015 and 851 in 2016.

Still, the population is five to six times larger than what’s needed to fulfill federal wolf recovery requirements. The species was delisted and turned over to state management in 2011.

“Montana’s wolf population grew steadily from the early 1980s, when there were less than 10 in the state,” the annual report explains. “After wolf numbers approached 1,000 in 2011 and wolves were delisted, the wolf population has decreased slightly and may be stabilizing.”

In 2009, Montana authorized an annual wolf hunt – and that may be making wolves more wary of humans, according to biologists. That, in turn, may be part of the reason why livestock depredations are decreasing.

More aggressive retaliatory action against wolves suspected of livestock kills also may be contributing to the already secretive animals’ increased avoidance of people and domestic animals, the report said.

The 2017-18 wolf season ended on March 15, 2017, and found 166 wolves killed by hunters and 89 by trappers, FWP reported.

At the same time, federal Wildlife Services officers killed 42 wolves that were involved in livestock depredations. Another 15 wolves were killed by private citizens who caught the animals chasing, killing or threatening livestock.

The 57 wolves killed in control actions during 2017 were down from 61 in 2016 – and were about one-third the number killed by Wildlife Services in 2009.

“The general decrease in livestock depredations since 2009 may be a result of several factors, primarily more aggressive wolf control in response to depredations,” FWP surmised in its annual report.

“Stabilization and reduced livestock depredation in recent years may be related to the onset of wolf hunting and trapping along with more aggressive depredation control actions,” the report said.

FWP has moved away from estimating the state’s wolf population by putting biologists in airplanes and attempting to locate and count packs from above.

“The old way of trying to count wolves from an airplane became a less and less accurate picture of wolf numbers as the wolf population grew beyond anyone’s ability to count it,” FWP said in its annual report. “Additionally, the old method was expensive and took up a lot of staff time.”

The agency now estimates wolf numbers using a method called POM, or Patch Occupancy Modeling.

FWP has used POM estimates along with the old minimum counts for several years. POM uses wolf sightings reported to FWP during annual deer hunter surveys, known wolf locations, habitat variables and research-based wolf territory and pack sizes to estimate wolf distribution and population size across the state.

In the future, all wolf reports will be released in late summer so the latest POM estimates can be included.

The 2017 annual report also touts the money generated for wolf conservation by the sale of hunting licenses. Last year, about $380,000 was generated for the state’s wolf management by wolf license sales.

FWP obtained full authority to manage wolves in Montana upon the federal delisting of the Rocky Mountain gray wolf in May 2011.