Montana and Idaho seek to increase wolf hunt quotas

May 15, 2010

In a bid to manage wolf population numbers and stem the tide of livestock predation, Montana and Idaho are considering quota increases of more than double last year’s wolf hunt for the upcoming 2010 season. Factors such as losses of livestock, falling numbers of big game animals such as elk, and an expanding wolf population have all contributed to the likelihood that Montana and Idaho wildlife managers will request an increase in available hunting tags. Yet uncertainty remains as to whether increased quotas will be approved. Litigants in a federal lawsuit, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, among others, are seeking to have the wolf reinstated on the federal endangered species list. With a hearing scheduled for June 15 in Missoula, MT, before U.S District Judge Donald Molloy, the future of the wolf hunt, and of the federal wolf delisting, is uncertain.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission convenes Thursday, May 13 to consider an increased quota proposal. Montana wildlife managers are requesting that the commission increase the wolf quota to between 186 and 216 wolves for the 2010 season, more than twice last year’s quota of 75 wolves, of which 72 were taken. The commission will also be looking at expanding the length of the hunt, introducing an archery season, and subdividing the state into hunt zones, each with their own local wolf quota.

It is hoped that by increasing wolf kills in zones where ranching is prevalent, the increased quotas will help control livestock predation. According to George Edwards, director of the Montana Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program, Montana ranchers lost 106 head of cattle and 256 sheep to wolf predation in 2009, totaling over $142,000 in losses.

If the proposal is approved by the committee, the decision will be opened for public comment through June 14, with a final decision due on July 8.

As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Montana chief of wildlife Ken McDonald stated: "Montana’s approach to wolf management continues to be balanced, scientific and measured. We’ve learned a lot over the past year and our proposals for 2010 reflect a rigorous, science-based effort to manage the total number of wolves that can be taken by hunters while maintaining a balance among all wildlife, their habitats and the people who live here. That balance will include managing for a recovered wolf population while addressing livestock depredation and impacts to other wildlife. It’s our responsibility to address the fact that more than 200 sheep and about 100 head of cattle were killed by wolves last year and that wolves have depressed deer and elk populations in some areas."

In neighboring Idaho, wildlife managers and biologists are still in the process of evaluating the results of last year’s hunt and developing a proposal for the 2010 season. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will meet in August to determine limits.

Jim Unsworth, Idaho Department of Fish and Game deputy director, explained the process, saying: "They’re trying to figure out how to craft this year’s hunting season to meet our objectives. Two of those objectives are to reduce wolf depredation on livestock and also to reduce the impacts of wolf predation on big game animals. There are some units around the state where, in all likelihood, we will increase limits. The overall limit, I’m not sure where that will be set, but I do know our Fish and Game Commission has an objective to reduce Idaho’s wolf population down to 520 animals. Right now, we’re at about 850."

Idaho’s wolf quota was set at 220 last year, with hunters taking 185 wolves. With the long-term goal of reducing the state wolf population by more than a third, the probability that Idaho will propose an increased quota seems very favorable. Says Unsworth, "We know that in order to decrease the population, we’re going to have to increase mortality, and in all likelihood, that will be through hunting."

In addition to addressing livestock losses, Idaho is also factoring impacts to big game populations into their 2010 wolf season proposal. Elk herds in the Lolo area, the Sawtooth zone, and the Salmon River country have been particularly hard hit by wolf predation, to the point where some herd numbers have fallen below zero growth.

"We have a lot of elk radio-collared right now, and mule deer, so we’re able to monitor their mortality rate and their causes of death," says Unsworth. "In some areas around the state, wolves are the number one cause of death for cow elk and calf elk. It’s exceeding our production for our elk herds, so some of our populations are going down."

The falling populations of some big game herds in Idaho create a stark contrast with the growing wolf population, which up until the 2009 hunt, was estimated at 20 percent a year, according to Unsworth. In a bid to reestablish balance between wolf and big game populations, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission plans to consider expanded bag limits, trapping, and the use of electronic calls and bait in areas where livestock and game are prevalent. Says Unsworth, "Those kinds of things are on the table, and will be discussed by the commission."

With the wolf population stabilized at zero growth by last-year’s hunt, Unsworth is hoping that issues with livestock will be noticeably reduced and can be maintained through the careful management of pack numbers in problem areas.

"We’re hoping we made some progress in that direction with our hunting season last year. We’ll have to wait and see. I’m ... hopeful that we will reduce our livestock problems this year with our wolf hunt and the control actions last year."

Yet, uncertainty persists for the future of the wolf hunt. The 2010 season is pending the result of a federal lawsuit brought by a group of activist organizations including Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club. The groups aim to put the wolf back on the federal endangered species list, which would make all wolf hunting illegal. Last year, the litigants tried unsuccessfully to block the 2009 wolf hunt with a preliminary injunction. Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, the litigants’ lead attorney, is optimistic that the June 15 hearing will be successful and will therefore make a request for a second injunction unnecessary. However, should a decision not be immediately forthcoming, Honnold indicated that an injunction will again be requested.

Said Honnold, "We think it’s likely that we’ll have a ruling on the merits of the case before hunts commence this fall in Montana and Idaho, and in light of that, there won’t be a need of injunction proceedings. But if there isn’t a decision by then, we will definitely move for an injunction to attempt to block the fall wolf hunts."

The litigants in the case do not feel that state management has sufficiently provided for wolf population numbers that are high enough to support genetic diversity and connectivity between distinct geographical groups, and that a reduction of numbers may lead to genetic deterioration through inbreeding. Of the federal delisting, Honnold remarked, "It’s partly premature and it’s partly illegal, and it’s partly not based on good biology."

This view is not shared by Unsworth. Referring to the litigants, Unsworth remarks, "I don’t think they understand wolf population biology ... Wolves are extremely productive. In areas of Canada and Alaska where they’ve hunted wolves for years, their hunting seasons are very liberal, they have liberal trapping seasons. The wolf populations have not been impacted. I don’t think they will be impacted down here, either, by hunting alone."

David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, also disagrees with the claims of the litigants, in particular, finding fault with their approach to wildlife management. "We believe that an increased quota would be beneficial, but bigger than that, we believe that the states need their rights back in order to manage predators, ungulates, and everything in between. The quota for 2010 is only the tip of the iceberg. The bigger issue is getting wolf management back in the hands of the states that are directly affected. You don’t manage wildlife in the federal court system." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Field Correspondent