Wolf quota near Yellowstone Park remains at two

Montana hunters and trappers can still kill only two wolves north of Yellowstone National Park.

On Wednesday, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission voted against a FWP effort to assuage elk hunters by increasing the quota in wolf management unit 313 near Gardiner.

The commission maintained the quota of two wolves in unit 313 that was established a year ago. That thwarted FWP's original proposal of upping that quota to six. In May, the commissioners made it clear they didn’t support such a large increase in an area that is only 10 miles long.

On Wednesday, Big Game Chief John Vore said FWP reconsidered and proposed increasing the quota to four, which is one more than when the quota was created in 2013. Unit 316 nearby has a quota of four. In addition, FWP proposed that no trapping would be allowed on Deckert Flats, but landowners would still be allowed to kill up to 100 wolves statewide to defend livestock and property.

FWP received 655 comments, most of which were anti-hunting, Vore said. Two-thirds were from out-of-state or out-of-country.

While editorializing on the department’s proposal, Vore said a difference of two wolves didn’t make any biological difference, but the department was trying to strike a social balance between the consumptive and nonconsumptive groups.

“In the earlier proposal, we were trying to stabilize the population (in 313). This is specifically to address the social issues that are occurring down there,” Vore said.

Nonconsumptive groups argue that the quota should remain low because the majority of wolves that pass through the area are from the park. When park wolves are killed, that leads to less viewing opportunity for tourists.

In addition, said Wolves of the Rockies spokesman Marc Cooke, poaching is known to occur in the area so increasing the quota isn’t needed to reduce the number of wolves.

Hunters, however, called for the increase to six. They’ve recently seen FWP reduce the number of bull elk they can shoot in elk management unit 313 so many blame wolves for the change.

Mark Lambrecht of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said the RMEF opposed keeping the wolf quota at two and accused the commission of making a decision based upon emotion, not science.

However, the elk herd is not below population objectives. Instead, biologists are concerned with the low bull-cow ratio because hunters have been preferentially killing mature bulls.

The one wolf pack that frequents the area has about a dozen members, but Vore said FWP has documented up to 29 wolves using the area and prefers to use that number.

Chairman Dan Vermillion asked Vore what counted as a wolf “using” the area. Vore said wolves migrating through the “postage stamp” that is unit 313 could count as “use.” Commissioner Gary Wolfe pointed out that wolves tend to use a large landscape so wolves using the area could just be transients and hunting them wouldn’t do much for elk in the area. But that also meant that the wolves probably travel out into areas where they can be hunted because there is no quota beyond units 313 and 316, Wolfe said.

Chris Colligan of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition supported keeping the quota at two and asked whether it was necessary to argue over the quota every year because it might be creating more strife.

“Allow this proposal to go forward, see how it stands the test of time, instead of coming back on an annual basis and looking at two wolves or four wolves or six wolves,” Colligan said.

Vermillion agreed, saying the department made it difficult for the commission to make a fair decision when it departed from the realm of science.

“The impact (of two or six wolves) on the elk population is negligible. This is largely a symbolic conversation. It’s no longer tethered to biology,” Vermillion said. “Montana has consistently managed wolves responsibly. This is the last place we’re struggling, partly because we’re trying to make everybody happy.”

He said bumping the quota to six for hunters ignored the economic boon that wolves bestowed on the Gardiner area. But many comments from wildlife advocates urged reducing the quota to zero, which also wasn’t acceptable, Vermillion said.

The commission voted to keep the quota at two.