Wolf hunt

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Wolves in the Agate pack stand off with a bull elk in Yellowstone National Park in 2006.

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Imagine a Montana with an open hunting season for wolves: no quotas, no hunting tags.

Anyone with a gun and clean shot could kill the animals on sight, be it for sport or for the pleasure of seeing one more threat to livestock and elk drop dead to the ground.

Others would surely decry the loss of wolves and rush to protect the iconic animal that faded from the state's landscape and ecosystem for so long.

But would the wolves be at risk?

Bob Ream, chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, says no.

He sees the wolf as a durable species, one that lives secretively and reproduces rapidly enough to keep on, even in the face of hunters' rifles.

"Wolves are here to stay," he said.

He's past the question of whether the animals will continue on in Montana - it's how many?

And the answer to that essentially comes down to the number needed to keep the wolf population healthy and how many the public will accept.

But people often have combating opinions. Environmentalists like to see more protection for wolves, while hunters and ranchers tend to want fewer of the animals, which they see, respectively, as a threat to wild game and livestock.

So how does a state with so many different stakeholders strike a balance?

Hopefully, with a number: 425.

That's the minimum number of wolves that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is predicting will be in Montana after this fall's hunting season, should its proposal for a hunting quota of 220 wolves be accepted later this week.

Thursday, the commission will meet in Big Sky to determine quotas, seasons and districts for the upcoming hunt. And what they decide will shape Montana's second fair chase wolf hunt.

2009 Hunt

The state's first fair chase hunt took place in 2009, when the quota was set at 75 wolves. The season ended with 72 wolves being taken, 78 percent of which were killed while hunters were pursuing elk or deer, according to FWP.

Now, looking back at that year, FWP officials said they learned that hunters can be effective as a management tool.

"By effective that is to say run into wolves and take those wolves," FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said.

But after that hunt, the wolf population increased by 4 percent, Ream said.

Scott Creel, a local ecology professor, said if wolves are moderately harvested, it can actually lead to increased populations because of less competition for resources.

For the 2011 hunt, FWP has already established that it's aiming for the population to shrink.

‘Let it be measurable'

FWP unabashedly operates by considering both social and scientific inputs.

Quentin Kujala, the management section supervisor for the FWP wildlife bureau, said stakeholders have provided growing input in favor of reducing the wolf population for the 2011 hunting season.

They "clearly communicated" desire for a reduction, he said.

So the goal is to make a significant difference in population size - not to reduce it by so much as half, but to "let it be measurable," Kujala said.

To achieve that, FWP looked at what the population should be. Last December, 566 wolves were counted in the state. A new proposal for this fall's hunting season would put the minimum population at 425.

"It represents a different level to which an assessment might reveal different tolerances," Kujala said. "Whether it'll be a final number remains to be seen."

FWP has proposed to set the 2011 quota at 220 wolves, with 14 wolf management units, which are designated zones that have different sub quotas. For example, an area laden with problem wolves would have a higher quota than an area with few conflicts, such as a wilderness area.

Last year, FWP proposed a quota of 186 wolves, with 13 units. But that proposal was derailed before it had a chance to get off the ground. In August 2010, a court ruling returned wolves to the federal endangered species list.

But on April 15 of this year, a new federal law enacted by U.S. Congress delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho, as well as in portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah. The law returned wolf management to states.

But some might wonder how, if the quota of 220 is accepted in Montana, FWP figures a minimum of 425 wolves will be left. The math doesn't quite add up, as the most recent population count of 566, with 220 subtracted, is 346.

But, as Kujala explains, 566 is just a base number.

And it's where the math starts. Every spring, the wolf population grows as new pups are born. It also shrinks as wolves naturally die off or are killed accidentally by a vehicle or other threats. Some wolves are also lost when they're shot after harming livestock or other domestic animals.

All those factors are considered. With that in mind, as well as the 220 wolves that could potentially be taken, FWP comes up with a minimum of 425 wolves left at the end of the year.

But Ream, the commission chairman, said the number of wolves actually left would likely be 10 to 30 percent higher. That's because wolf counts don't include the entire population because some wolves are never seen during the count.

A new pack

In 1979, when people thought there were no wolves in the state, Ream oversaw a project that lead to the first radio-collared wolf in Montana.

The female wolf that was collared had likely dispersed from another pack, and she eventually found a mate, starting a new pack.

Montana's wolf population began increasing throughout the 1980s, which Ream attributes to tighter Canadian regulations on wolf hunting.

Fewer wolves were killed in Canada, meaning more came into the U.S.

Now, Ream said northwest Montana claims 60 percent of the state's wolves. And he said those wolves are largely there because of natural recovery, rather than being products of the 1996 introduction into Yellowstone National Park.

As for the upcoming hunt, Ream has seen the wolf population burgeon and doesn't think it's in peril.

But he does question where exactly wolves should be shot.

"Do we want them all over Montana, in Plentywood and Roundup?" he said. "Is it really suitable habitat anymore when you have mostly agricultural landscape?"

A personal idea of his is to focus more on hunting the animals on the outskirts of national parks or wilderness areas.

"I think we can hit them harder in those marginal areas," he said. "We're always going to have core areas providing wolves to surrounding areas...They're refuges from which wolves can scatter out. All I'm saying is to go east from there or the Rocky Mountain front, it's almost immediately into pure agricultural landscapes."

But Matt Skoglund of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote a comment to FWP asking that it establish a buffer zone around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks to protect park wolf populations and wolf research projects.

"In 2009, several wolves were killed on the edge of the national parks, including multiple members of Yellowstone's Cottonwood pack," he wrote. "This cannot be allowed to happen again."

Lisa Upson of the Keystone Conservation predator protection group said she would like to see more wolves in the state.

"We'd like to see (the population) play its natural ecological role as much as possible, and that means more wolves rather than less wolves," she said. "We think the wolf hunt appeals primarily to emotional interests, and we wish more resources were put into preventing conflicts."

But George Trischman, a rancher in the Ruby Valley near Twin Bridges, said he

"totally supports" the wolf hunt.

He's had cattle killed by wolves. He said the losses to the livestock industry extend beyond that. For example, cattle tend to lose weight when wolves are around or fail to breed because of stress.

"I was totally against them when they were introduced," Trischman said. "But if we address the problem wolves and keep numbers in check, I think we can live with them. I just think it's kind of a new reality that we're going to have to live with them."

Montana's number

When the commission decides Montana's wolf hunt quota for this year, the number will not necessarily be long term, Kujala said.

Next year, the quota will be reassessed for the fall season.

Managing wolves in the state will be a learning process, one that seems to come down to one question: What's Montana's number?

But, as Kujala said, "that's more a question than an answer."

Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com.

 

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