BY LISA BARIL
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night…Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
When Aldo Leopold wrote those words 65 years ago there were no wolf howls rolling down Montana’s mountains, no deer (or elk) were reminded of the way of flesh, and the cowman saw no red ink at the bank by reason of the wolf. No one paid heed to the howl of the wolf, because there were no wolves to heed. Extermination programs led to their demise, and by the 1930s the wolf howl was merely a distant echo of the past. Eventually, biologists recognized the important role of wolves in the environment. In the winters of 1995 and 1996, 31 wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park. Released wolves established packs, bred, and dispersed. Wolves spilled over into Montana, Idaho (where wolves were also released), and deeper into Wyoming. The restoration of wolves from a biological perspective was successful. So successful that in 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned over complete management of Montana’s wolves to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). Since then state biologists have been learning to manage this top predator against a political backdrop as varied as the natural landscape they roam. Wildlife advocates contend there aren’t enough wolves. They argue that current hunting regulations are decimating the population. Hunters claim that wolves are surviving too well, and that they are doing it at the expense of elk. But according to FWP, by 2013 more than 600 wolves resided in Montana, and while some elk herds have declined, wolf predation is one of many factors including disease, winter conditions, predation by other carnivores, and harvest regulations. It’s up to FWP to address these concerns while maintaining a healthy population of Montana’s most polarizing wildlife species—a balance state biologists plan to achieve through regulated hunting. Since 2011, FWP has experimented with three wolf hunting seasons—each with increasingly liberal regulations (a brief hunting season occurred in 2009 during a short-lived period of de-listing where 72 wolves were harvested). But hunting alone fell short of FWP’s 2011 management objectives. Initially, the statewide harvest quota was set at 220 wolves, but despite selling more than 18,000 licenses the quota remained unmet, even after extending the season by six weeks, explains Abby Nelson, FWP’s Living-ston-based wolf specialist. So, for the 2012-2013 season, FWP added trapping as a harvest method in order to increase “take”. “In reality wolves are extremely difficult to hunt,” Nelson told the Pioneer. “Hunting and trapping are complimentary tools to reach FWP’s management objectives…and after our regulations allowed for trapping, we saw a boost in the number of wolves taken.” Over the next two seasons, 455 wolves were harvested including 183 by trapping. FWP also began selling multiple licenses to individual hunters, extended the length of the hunting season, and eliminated the statewide quota to further increase harvest (although a quota remains in hunting districts around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks). Little about wolf management is undisputed and trapping is no exception. Opponents argue that animals suffer needlessly, sometimes for days while they struggle to break free. “Trapping is cruel and unethical and never acceptable as a management tool,” says Chris Justice, executive director of Montana Footloose—a non-profit organization promoting trap-free public lands for people, pets and wildlife. The Montana Trappers Association did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but according to their website, montanatrappers.org, trapping is a time honored tradition in North America with roots dating back to the 1500s and is important to wildlife management. FWP is acutely aware of the public’s perception of trapping, which is why trappers are required to take a one-time trapping certification class prior to purchasing their first wolf license. “Trapping is controversial, and we emphasize that it can be done both effectively and ethically,” says Nelson. The day-long class taught by FWP game wardens and wolf specialists covers trapping ethics, state regulations, and ways to minimize trapping non-target animals. Instructors also discuss where to trap to decrease conflicts with other people and animals using the same landscape, as well as encouraging sensitivity to those opposed to trapping by not boasting of successful captures or posting videos and photos online. Currently, non-lethal foothold traps are the only types allowed in Montana. Generally, several traps are set in an area where wolves are likely to travel and hunt. Trappers are allowed to use recorded animal sounds like wolf howls, bait traps with up to three pounds of meat, and use scent lures like wolf scat or urine to attract a wolf, according to 2014 hunting regulations and FWP biologists. Traps must be checked at least every 48 hours, but FWP encourages checking traps more frequently. Trapped wolves must be killed by gunshot and reported to FWP within 24-hours. For those wishing to keep either the hide or skull, the trapper must present it in person to FWP biologists so that it can be tagged and examined. But, with about 1,500 trapping licenses sold during the 2012-2013 season alone, it could be difficult to enforce regulations. “The perception that this is a well regulated Montana tradition is absurd. Trapping is largely deregu-lated and loosely enforced. There is no attempt to monitor it,” said Justice. FWP insists, however, that wolf hunting is regulated. “We generally give thorough inspections to each pelt that comes in. Part of that is talking to the hunter or trapper about the method of take they used. Typically, it all lines out—a bullet hole in the vitals for the hunter and some evidence of a trap being on one of the feet for trapped wolves. We always work with game wardens when things do not line up like this,” explains Nelson. According to the 2013 Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Report, the wolf program costs about $934,000 a year, of which 41 percent comes from license fees. For the 2014-2015 season, Montana residents will pay about $40 for a wolf trapping and hunting license ($19 for a general license and $20 for a trapping license). Non-residents pay about $300. More than 75,000 residents and nearly 3,000 non-residents purchased licenses since the first hunting season in 2009. Wolf hunting revenue pays for population monitoring, collaring, outreach, livestock depredation response, law enforcement, and harvest oversight. But, even so, a small percentage of that revenue comes from trap license fees, argues Justice. “I’m a hunter and a native Montanan. We are not opposed to hunting and see the real economic benefit, but the money gained from trap license fees is so small and insignificant that it is negligible to conservation.” But thinning Montana’s more than 600 wolves isn’t the only reason for trapping. FWP biologists use trapping to collar wolves for research and monitoring purposes. “I use a #7 double long spring rubber-jawed trap made by Livestock Protection Company. I’ve had good luck with this trap,” says Nelson. Nelson acknowledges that while it’s possible to injure a paw, careful attention paid by the trapper to the type of trap, rigging, and frequent trap checks reduces this risk. While FWP argues for trapping as a management and research tool, opponents worry about the risk to pets and other wildlife. “We have over 100 accounts of pets being caught in traps set for fur-bearing animals,” says Justice. According to data provided by FWP, since 2012, in Montana, 84 domestic dogs were caught in traps on public and private land—most in traps intended for coyotes or bobcats. Although the majority of dogs sustained minor foot injuries, one was killed. In the same time period, wolf traps captured fifteen mountain lions (five of which died), a grizzly bear, lynx, golden eagle, and a white-tailed deer. “Non-target captures are probably underreported,” says Andrea Jones, FWP information and education manager. While most trappers take measures to minimize the risk of capturing non-target wildlife, it’s a part of trapping, but most trappers do not set traps where there is a significant risk of catching a pet, explains Nelson. Although some find hunting wolves for the sake of capturing a trophy animal offensive (you can’t eat a wolf), hunting improves tolerance for these large carnivores, especially where they come into conflict with livestock. From 2002 to 2013, more than 1,500 cattle, sheep and other livestock were depredated by wolves in Montana. Although compensation programs help ease the pain, according to FWP, regulated hunting does more to lessen anti-wolf sentiment. Whether one views trapping as a time honored tradition and effective management tool, or as cruel and unethical, FWP will continue to use trapping as a way of thinning Montana’s wolves, at least for the time being. And, as long as FWP includes trapping in their regulations, organizations like Montana Footloose will continue to fight for trap-free public lands. The 2014-2015 season marks the fourth regulated wolf hunt since management was handed to the state of Montana in 2011. The season begins in mid-September, with trapping to begin in mid-December. With respect to the hunting regulations, Nelson says, “we have yet to see how all of this will play out in the long-term and we are taking it one step at a time.”
Lisa Baril is a wildlife biologist and freelance writer who lives in Mammoth, WY.