Wolf hunt near Yellowstone halted

Oct 16, 2009

Wolf hunt near Yellowstone halted

Montana wildlife commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday, Oct. 13, to halt gray wolf hunting in a wilderness district near Yellowstone National Park after nine of the predators were killed within three weeks of a special hunt’s early season start, including four members of a Cottonwood pack familiar to tourists.

A 12-wolf quota originally was set for the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness or Hunting Unit 316—one of two "backcountry" areas of Montana where wolf hunting was allowed before the statewide season opens on Sunday, Oct. 25. Grazing is not allowed in backcountry.

The commissioners, however, renewed their commitment to allow 75 wolves to be hunted statewide as a means of curbing livestock depredation when Montana’s general hunting season starts.

From 1985 to 2008, about 585 sheep and nearly 400 head of cattle were killed by wolves in the state, according to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department. That compares to an estimated 1,295 sheep and almost 280 head of cattle killed by wolves during the same period in Idaho.

Wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho this fall are the first in the 48 contiguous states since the gray wolves were removed last May from a federal endangered species list in those states, which have an estimated combined total of 1,350 to 1,550 wolves. Montana has about 550 wolves and Idaho 800 to 1,000 wolves.

Montana’s 75 wolf kill quota is about 15 percent of that predator’s population in the Treasure State, while Idaho’s 220 limit is roughly 25 percent of the wolves in the Gem State. Hunters in the two states have killed at least 48 wolves since Sept. 1. There were 89 packs in Montana at the end of 2008, including 18 in the area bordering Yellowstone.

Shane Colton, who chairs the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission, said he and its four other commissioners were a little surprised by the concentrated number of wolves killed so soon in the backcountry. "We need a better harvest in the ‘front country,’" the Billings resident said. "This is really a work in progress. We set a fairly conservative quota in that management unit."

Speculating on why the early season wolf hunt was so successful there, Colton said, "These wolves as they integrate back and forth in the park may be a little bit more habituated and more used to humans." He noted the area also is more open than some other districts.

Colton said wolves are extremely adaptive and likely will become more savvy as more hunting is allowed. He said his commission is committed to managing them responsibly. Most wolf hunt permits bought by hunters will be used during the general big game season and are considered incidental.

"We’re not closing all backcountry. We want to maintain some opportunity. Hindsight being what it is, I suspect we will set up a specific sub-quota in that hunting district."

Even if there is a slight overrun in the 12-wolf quota for that remote area, it should not have a dramatic impact on Montana’s wolf population. "We’re very comfortable with the overall numbers. In the long run, we’re hoping hunters will be a tool to address the issues of livestock depredation. Hunters are happy to supplement that role if possible," he said.

"We’re going to be fine with our numbers. We’re going to see the commission watching this hunt very closely and making adjustment to make sure it fits in with our wolf management."

Caroline Sime, Montana’s wolf program coordinator, said, "Every place in the world where you have wolves and livestock in the same environment, some livestock get killed by wolves and some wolves get killed by people. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily unique."

All livestock cannot be secured and protected from wolves, but hunting is a management tool that helps balance the numbers of wild animals with the habitat they occupy, Sime told WLJ. "We will never get rid of all the livestock or get rid of all the wolves. It’s not going to happen."

Conceding that wolf hunts are "a very hot topic," she said the commission’s decision to halt wolf kills in the backcountry is "nothing particularly earthshaking" as the commission pauses, considers options, and stays it course.

Commissioner Bob Ream of Helena, MT, guessed Montana has sold more than 10,000 wolf hunting licenses, but he said more wolves will be eliminated by depredation control than hunters. Ream has spent more than 20 years researching wolves.

"We have to be careful in the future opening wilderness areas before the rest of the state." Wilderness areas can tolerate more wolves, but there are more livestock conflicts in grazing areas, Ream said, adding in retrospect, it was not wise for Montana to allow so many wolves to be killed on land adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

However, because wolves are such prolific breeders, those killed will be easily replaced. Even expanding Montana’s wolf kill by as much as 30 percent a year would not harm their recovery, he said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent