While animal rights’ groups battle to keep wolves on the Endangered Species List indefinitely, professional wildlife managers with Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) are proposing to increase the harvest quota from last season’s 75 wolves to at least 186 or no more than 216 for next season. Also proposed are 14 wolf hunting units, instead of the three management units designated in 2009.
“In a word, it’s all about balance,” said Ken McDonald, FWP’s chief of wildlife. “Smaller and more wolf management units represent lessons learned from the 2009 hunting season. Some areas contributed more to the harvest than expected and prevented us from addressing management needs in other areas. We want to adjust that to ensure a widely distributed harvest and yet still target areas where we’re seeing impacts on prey, like elk and deer, and where recurring livestock depredations are anticipated.”
McDonald said a harvest quota of 186 wolves would likely reduce the wolf population by about 13 percent, to a predicted 439 wolves living in packs at the end of 2010. A harvest quota of 216 is projected to reduce the wolf population to 403 wolves living in packs, or by about 20 percent. These projections include anticipated reductions due to livestock depredation and mortalities from other events, like accidents and natural causes.
McDonald noted that the proposed harvest alternatives carry specific tradeoffs. “We believe both options are in line with our wildlife management responsibilities,” he said. “The lower quota of 186 wolves moves us at a slower management pace, while a quota of 216 wolves allows us to move a bit more rapidly to address the wildlife and livestock depredation issues that are occurring. In both cases, we know these quotas are conservative and in line with what we think will be viewed as reasonable proposals. We need to hear how the commission and public feel about the pace and the associated tradeoffs.”
The public will have an opportunity to comment on any proposal approved by the commission. The statewide meetings to discuss the proposals will be held June 2. The public comment period is expected to run through June 14. A final decision on the wolf season and quota is set for July 8.
“Montana's approach to wolf management continues to be balanced, scientific and measured,” McDonald said. “We’ve learned a lot over the past year and our proposals for 2010 reflect a rigorous, science-based effort to manage the total number of wolves that can be taken by hunters while maintaining a balance among all wildlife, their habitats and the people who live here. That balance will include managing for a recovered wolf population while addressing livestock depredation and impacts to other wildlife. It’s our responsibility to address the fact that more than 200 sheep and about 100 head of cattle were killed by wolves last year and that wolves have depressed deer and elk populations in some areas.”
Last year, during Montana’s first-ever regulated wolf hunt, hunters harvested 72 wolves between Sept. 15 and Nov. 16. As hunters approached the overall harvest quota of 75 wolves, FWP closed the hunt about two weeks before the season was scheduled to end to ensure the quota would not be exceeded. McDonald stressed that FWP will continue to monitor the wolf population before, during, and after the hunting season to determine how the population responds.
Officials caution, however, that the wolf hunting season could be blocked by groups that recently sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent wolf delisting. Such legal challenges prevented wolf delisting and a hunting season in 2008 and could affect the wolf hunt this year. FWP has joined the USFWS’s defense of the delisting decision. Court arguments are set for June 15 in Missoula, Mont.
The recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs—successfully reproducing wolf packs—and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years. This goal was achieved in 2002, and the wolf population has increased every year since. The northern Rockies’ “metapopulation” is comprised of wolf populations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Today, about 1,700 wolves, with about 115 breeding pairs, live in the region, where wolves can travel about freely to join existing packs or form new packs. This, combined with wolf populations in Canada and Alaska, assures genetic diversity. In Montana, officials estimate that at least 524 wolves, in 101 verified packs, and 37 breeding pairs inhabited the state at the end of 2009.
Delisting allows Montana to manage wolves in a manner similar to how bears, mountain lions and other wildlife species are managed, guided completely by state management plans and laws. The full FWP Commission agenda and additional information on the scheduled topics may be found on the FWP website at www.fwp.mt.gov on the home page under the heading FWP Commission.
To learn more about Montana’s wolf population, visit FWP online at www.fwp.mt.gov. Click “Montana Wolves.”
Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission will meet in August to set the rules for their 2010 wolf hunt. The commission’s current objective calls for reducing wolf numbers down to 520, from their level today of about 843.