Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is proposing a noticeable increase in the number of wolves that can be killed outside of Yellowstone National Park, a move that wolf advocates claim is political, not scientific.
When the FWP commission meets on Thursday, dozens of people will probably once again line up to oppose each other on specifics of Montana’s wolf hunt, namely a proposal to increase the wolf quota in management unit 313 to six. Currently, hunters and trappers can kill only two wolves in the area around Gardiner.
The explanation FWP gives for increasing the quota is a desire to “stabilize the number of wolves that use unit 313 by harvesting slightly less than 29 percent (a harvest rate supported by the scientific literature) of counted wolves.” Since 2011, FWP biologists have counted between 18 and 40 wolves passing through the unit.
But wolf advocates aren’t buying that. They say FWP is proposing the increase as a way to pacify outfitters and hunters who are infuriated over recent reductions in the number of elk that can be hunted in 313.
In November, FWP biologist Karen Loveless decided the elk season in unit 313 needed to change because she’d watched bull elk numbers drop in the Northern Yellowstone herd over a number of years. In 2015, the elk sex ratio had dropped to less than three bulls for every 100 cows.
A good portion of the reason for the decrease is that since 2010, 80 to 90 percent of the elk shot by hunters have been bulls and half of those were mature bulls, according to FWP records. For example, in 2014, 315 bulls and 31 cows were harvested in 313, according to FWP estimates.
So in November, FWP proposed to issue only 75 bull elk permits in unit 313. Outfitters met that with stiff resistance and comment at public meetings was heated. Some blamed the elk numbers on wolves. In February, FWP backed off and instead will allow anyone with a license to hunt during the first three weeks of the hunting season. During the last two weeks, only those who drew one of 50 permits can hunt, so outfitters are still disgruntled.
Marc Cooke of Wolves of the Rockies sees the wolf-quota increase as another bone being thrown to hunters and outfitters.
“(The outfitters) have the attitude that, ‘You’re cutting back on the elk license numbers. Why is it that you’re not banging the wolf numbers down if you want to see a true recovery?” Cooke said.
Cooke said outfitters and hunters were also angry that this winter, Native Americans were allowed to kill elk when bison weren’t outside the park for them to hunt. Tribes have treaty rights and don't need state licenses or permits to hunt in areas that were their traditional hunting grounds. But it became one more sore spot for state hunters.
The hunting units near Glacier and Yellowstone parks have been contentious areas for the wolf hunt because wolves are protected in the parks but become targets once they leave. When the alpha female of Yellowstone's Lamar Canyon pack was shot in 2013, there was a significant public outcry. Many wolf advocates suspect that hunters now target collared wolves.
Over the years, advocates have requested the creation of a buffer zone around the parks to protect park wolves. But that was negated when the Montana Legislature passed a law prohibiting the creation of a buffer zone. FWP’s compromise was to set quotas for the three hunting units adjacent to the national parks when it eliminated quotas for everywhere else in 2013.
Since then, when the commission has debated the quotas, the change has been only one wolf either way. In 2013, the quota for unit 313 was set at three and 316 was set at four. In 2014, the commission considered raising the 313 quota to four but Commissioner Gary Wolfe argued that it might be a slap in the face to the wildlife watchers and all the revenue they bring into the area.
Last year, the commission reduced the 313 quota to two wolves.
After such tiny increments have been proposed in the past, ratcheting the quota up to six seems extreme, said Garrick Dutcher, Living With Wolves executive director. Just as the elk move in and out of the park to find forage, wolves move in and out following their prey, Dutcher said. So it’s impossible to “stabilize” the number of wolves using the area because any number of different wolves could be passing through depending on the year.
If six wolves are killed in unit 313 this winter, they’ll be mostly if not all park wolves. If those wolves are the alpha members of a pack like the Lamar Canyon female, science has shown the resulting loss destroys pack knowledge and cohesion, so younger pack members are more likely to get into trouble, either with livestock or other packs, Dutcher said.
In past years, both commissioners Dan Vermillion and Gary Wolfe said the difference of one wolf either way in the quota probably didn’t make a real difference, but it was symbolic. Dutcher said an increase of four wolves probably doesn’t do much more damage, but the symbolic meaning that wolves are a bargaining chip is amplified.
Plus, this year seems to be a particularly bad year to try such a quota increase since it is the Centennial of the National Park Service.
“Is there not enough room on the landscape and the hearts of the people of the American West to allow the wolves that live in our national parks to live out their lives in a natural way? Do we not have space for them here?” Dutcher said.
Meanwhile, FWP has been working with hunters representatives and wildlife advocates as part of its "Finding Common Ground" initiative to find other funding sources for FWP. Cooke said this situation is exactly why wildlife advocates are wary of helping to fund FWP.
"You want our money because you need our money but it's like taxation without representation. You don't want to listen what we have to say. It doesn't work that way," Cooke said. "We're going to push hard to keep (the quota) at two,"
If the commission votes to put the proposal out to public comment, FWP will accept comment until June 17 at 5 p.m. The commission will make its final decision during the July commission meeting.