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Who’s Crying Wolf?

As the debate about wolf hunting swells out West, the author says the future of responsible wolf management remains far from certain.


Ryan Counts, a hunting guide from Pray, Mont., sighted a mature wolf on Oct. 3, 2009, and grabbed his rifle. He was hunting elk on Buffalo Plateau north of Yellowstone, an area where the Northern Yellowstone elk herd plummeted 67 percent between 1994-2008, a tumble in which wolves played a chief role. He had a wolf tag. This was his chance to do something about the wolf population.

He killed the wolf.

He found out later the wolf he shot was known as “No. 527.” It was a female born in 2002 into what had been Yellowstone’s Druid Peak Pack, a pack made famous by the PBS documentary “In the Valley of the Wolves.” He didn’t know “wolf watchers” had named this wolf “Bolt” because it had a Z-shaped marking on its hip. But, even if he had known, he says he would have killed it nonetheless.

On the other side of the issue are wolf watchers such as Laurie Lyman, a former San Diego teacher who uses her blog to tell the stories of individual wolves. When Counts shot wolf No. 527 Lyman reacted as if someone shot her dog. She wrote, “527 is gone. It is with a heavy heart that I write yet another obituary for a wolf that was part of our lives for seven years … . She was a one-of-a-kind wolf.”

Such was the dramatic divide between views of the first modern wolf seasons in Montana and Idaho.

How Did the Season Go?
With an estimated population of at least 1,645 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) finally followed its own guidelines by removing Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from wolves in the northern Rockies in May 2009. After a series of court challenges, seasons were enacted in Idaho and Montana this past fall and winter to manage the wolf populations. At press time, Wyoming’s wolf-management plan had not been approved by the USFWS; as a result, the Cowboy State wasn’t allowed to conduct a season in 2009. Wyoming is currently fighting for its plan in court (see sidebar, “Wyoming’s Wolf Fight”).

Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), is pleased with the results of its wolf hunt. She said, “Hunters killed 72 wolves in Montana. Our goal was to kill 75 of the state’s estimated 500-plus wolves. We stopped the season early to prevent hunters from exceeding that number. It was a very successful hunt. We’re now confident a public hunt can continue to be a critical population-management tool for wolves, just as it has been for Montana’s other big-game species.”

Meanwhile, at press time, Idaho’s hunters looked like they'd fall short of killing the 220 wolves the state had hoped to take from an estimated population of 850. Michael Keckler, communications director for the Idaho Department of Fish & Game, said, “We’re on track to get the wolf population under control thanks to hunter-conservationists.”

Montana and Idaho used a quota-based approach, much like they do for mountain lions. A quota system establishes a total number of wolves that can be killed in each unit. Hunters are required to report killing a wolf within 12 hours and to call in before going hunting to make sure a unit is still open. As a result, the kill was “well distributed geographically,” said Sime. She added, “Now we can continue to perfect our seasons and quotas regionally to manage the wolf population with other big-game species and to reduce livestock and pet losses to wolves. The wolf is here to stay. Now we just have to learn how to manage them.”

The Wolf’s Future in the West
So with both states saying they had successful seasons, have environmentalists been crying wolf? After all, animal-rights activists predicted wolf seasons in the West would bring extinction to the burgeoning gray wolf population. Indeed, the least hyperbolic stance from anti-hunters came from The New York Times, which opined in an editorial in September 2009: “To us, the wolf hunt in Idaho and Montana seems indecent. Hunters want to kill wolves because wolves kill elk—and the human hunters want the elk. A second reason is a love of killing things. A third is an implacable, and unjustified, hostility to the wolf. It is well past time to let gray wolves find their own balance in the Rockies.”

This urban viewpoint doesn’t function in reality, says Ed Bangs, USFWS western gray wolf recovery coordinator. He says the wolf season in Idaho and Montana was hardly “indecent.” Bangs explains that the ESA is not a good tool for managing a wildlife population. It is only useful for recovering a population, and wolves surpassed minimum numbers set by the USFWS years ago.  
The idea that wolves should find “their own balance in the Rockies” is also a false premise proved with each cow and sheep wolves kill, says Sime. People live in every ecosystem in the West—no matter what a Manhattan-based newspaper says—so people have to participate in the predator-prey system. Wolves and grizzlies don’t belong near Montana school bus stops any more than they do in Central Park.

A winter drive out of ski resorts in Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Big Sky, Mont., and into the lower-elevation valleys below would illustrate this point, as doing so would show any visiting wolf lover herds of elk that have come down out of the snow-laden mountains to wintering areas. These wintering areas are habitat that groups, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, have worked hard to preserve. Seeing thousands of elk and deer wintering along roads and near ranch houses and towns should be evidence enough that people and wildlife share the same habitat and so have to find a balance with each other, a balance maintained with science-based hunts, say the game agencies.

That’s the reality, says Bangs, who adds, “Because of the hunts, the wolf’s overall population will likely be the same in hunted areas in 2010 as it was in 2009. Stabilizing the wolf population is a positive step forward. These hunts will not lead to wolf extinction in the West.”

In fact, Bangs says the USFWS is hoping hunters can be used in future seasons to lower the wolf population in the northern Rockies to around 1,200 animals, from at least 1,645 today. In 2009, Montana hunters killed about 15 percent of the state’s wolf population. At press time, Idaho was still trying to kill about 25 percent of its wolves. Bangs says hunters would need to kill 30 percent or more of a wolf population to bring it down. Bangs says, “Another benefit of hunting is that hunters typically kill the boldest wolves and the wolves that are in the more open habitats. These wolves are the ones that are most likely to attack livestock and pets, so we see hunting as a critical part of the wolf’s recovery and their continued acceptance in the West.”

One reason for having a wolf season, say biologists and hunters, is that elk populations are being severely impacted in some areas by wolf predation. In Montana’s Madison Valley, for example, a study done  by FWP indicated that during the winter of 2002-03 wolves killed .125 elk per day, which was the equivalent of each wolf killing 23 elk from November-April.  In the Northern Yellowstone Range—the area where Counts shot wolf No.  527—wolf kills on elk fell from an estimated 11 per wolf from November through April to about 7 as the elk herd plummeted.
Idaho has seen similar declines due to wolf predation. Survey results indicated the elk population in the state’s Lolo Zone, which was once one of the best public areas in the state, has declined 57 percent (from 5,110 to 2,178) since 2006. “This survey, combined with ongoing research showing wolves are the primary cause of elk mortality today, is further scientific evidence of the impact wolves are having,” said Cal Groen, Idaho Fish & Game Department director. “The rate of this decline in just four short years should help people understand there is an urgency to manage for a balance in this area.”

Another factor is that when wolf populations outgrow wild areas and/or their natural prey base declines, more wolves kill livestock. In 2008, for example, Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spent more than $1 million  killing 264 wolves that preyed on livestock in  the Rockies. Agencies also paid livestock owners more than $500,000 for losses to wolves in 2008. Bangs believes licensed hunters will make Wildlife Services’ job of controlling depredating wolves easier and cheaper.

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