Montana wildlife officials more than doubled the number of wolves that can be legally bagged during this year's hunting season while also promising a more tailored plan that will direct hunters to areas where wolves are known to prey on livestock.
Commissioners at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks today voted to increase this year's wolf quota to 186, a sharp increase from the 75 wolves allowed in last year's inaugural hunt.
The increase is expected to reduce the overall wolf population in the state by 13 percent, from an estimated 506 at the end of last year to 439 in 2010, according to the agency.
The commission also considered quotas of 153 and 216, which would have reduced gray wolf numbers by 8 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
"This year's quota of 186 is a conscious choice on our part to initiate a decline in the population," said Carolyn Sime, the state's wolf program coordinator.
The new plan also increases the number of wolf management units from three to 13 in hopes of culling fewer wolves in some backcountry areas where the animals pose little threat to livestock.
Montana's 2009 wolf season came under fire after an early backcountry hunt resulted in nine animals being killed a few miles north of Yellowstone National Park. Four of those wolves are believed to come from Yellowstone's famed Cottonwood pack, essentially terminating a multi-year research program (Land Letter, Oct. 29, 2009).
As a result, the new plan allows only three wolves to be killed in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone, and smaller management units were created in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas near Glacier National Park, Sime said.
"Some of these backcountry areas came out with a more tailored approach," said Sime. "It is a more refined look at distribution of wolfs on the landscape."
The commissioners also passed a staff proposal not to include illegal wolf kills in the statewide quota, despite calls from environmental groups to include poaching in the tally.
Licenses will still cost $19 for in-state hunters and $350 for those out of state. Last year's hunt generated an estimated $325,000 in revenue on the sale of about 15,000 wolf licenses, most of them in-state tags, Sime said.
Ranchers, sportsmen's groups and outfitting companies all supported increasing the 2010 harvest of wolves, which are widely blamed for an increase in livestock depredation and a precipitous decline in elk and other big game species in some parts of the state.
Confirmed cattle deaths increased to 97 in 2009, and confirmed sheep deaths increased to 202, according to the state. Other confirmed livestock losses include four llamas, four dogs and two goats.
"We fully support any increase in the wolf or predator quota that Fish, Wildlife & Parks would mandate," said Bill Merrill, state president of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, which pushed the state to adopt its higher quota of 216 wolves. "That's because we have seen a drastic decline in all our big game herds in the state, and that is tied directly to predation from wolves."
In a May letter to FWP, Merrill criticized proposals to reduce wolf hunting in areas surrounding Yellowstone, arguing that the region accounts for more than half of the state's elk harvest and hunter recreation.
"The harsh impacts to our herds, livestock and domestic pets will continue to grow in these areas if the maximum quota of 216 wolves is not set forth for the upcoming season," he said.
The impacts have already been felt by several hunting outfitters in the Bitterroot areas of western Montana who have moved their businesses across the Idaho state line where wolf hunting is more liberal, said Tom Henderson, who owns Bitterroot Outfitters in Hamilton, Mont.
"Montana, in my opinion, has kind of dropped the ball," said Henderson, whose business served as many as 100 elk hunters a year in Montana but has seen business decline about 90 percent in the state in recent years. "It has affected a lot of outfitting businesses, and several have packed up and moved to Idaho."
Members of the Bitterroot Elk Working Group, a stakeholder board that advises the state, had urged FWP to create a new hunting unit with higher harvest numbers in an area of western Montana where elk herds have declined by 62 percent since 2005.
But a new subunit in Hunting District 250 near the West Fork would not likely reduce the wolf population in the area unless the agency could shrink populations in wilderness areas across the Idaho border, Sime said. Moreover, wolf predation is likely only one factor affecting elk herds, in addition to mountain lion and bear predation and habitat changes, she said.
"Even if all 15 wolves were killed [in subunit 250], there will likely be backfill," she said.
The expected population decline would be the species' first since gray wolves were reintroduced in the northern Rockies in 1995, a reversal that worries environmental groups that have challenged the decision to delist the species in federal court.
"This is a program that has been fundamentally flawed both legally and biologically," said Doug Honnold, managing attorney for Earthjustice, which represents 13 groups fighting to restore Endangered Species Act protections for the species in a federal district court in Missoula, Mont.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is expected to issue a ruling on whether the federal government legally delisted the species in Montana and Idaho -- but not in Wyoming -- before the start of Montana's hunt on Sept. 4.
Wolf recovery goals in Montana are on shaky grounds legally, Honnold said, because they differ markedly from goals set for the species in the Upper Midwest.
"For a single species -- a single listed entity -- they've come up with radically different recovery standards," Honnold said. Fish and Wildlife Service set its recovery standard at 300 in the northern Rockies and roughly 1,500 in Midwest, Honnold said. "Our question is, 'Why are wolves in the northern Rockies second-class citizens?'"
Scientists call for a minimum of 2,000 wolves in the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in order to ensure genetic diversity among the region's packs, according to the groups filing the lawsuit. Currently, there are roughly 1,700 wolves in the northern Rockies.
Wolf numbers in Montana rose slightly in 2009, despite the authorized killing of 75 wolves in the state's first sanctioned hunt since the species was delisted in Montana and Idaho in April 2009. Nearly 200 more wolves were killed by federal wildlife agents, illegal killings, train and car collisions, and old age, Sime said.
"Even with all that mortality, we saw a small increase in the population," she said. "Our take-home message is that even with hunter mortality, the population was at least stable."
Since delisting the wolves, FWS has monitored the animal's status but has otherwise allowed Montana and Idaho to proceed with their own wolf management plans. The agency would intervene only if either state's wolf population drops below 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs, or if either state falls below 15 breeding pairs or 150 wolves for three consecutive years.
A 2003 environmental impact statement in Montana set a goal of maintaining 15 breeding pairs in the state, Sime said. The state currently has at least 37 breeding pairs.
Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife at FWP, this morning said the agency’s proposed wolf quota should leave between 21 and 26 breeding pairs at the end of the year.
“There’s very minimal risk of dropping below the 15 pair threshold,” he said.