Wolf Numbers May Far Exceed Official Estimates
BY PAT HILL
In the wake of the first hunting seasons on wolves in the lower 48 states since the animals were removed from Federal Endangered Species status, wolves appear to be out-foxing hunters and wildlife officials in the Northern Rockies.
Though wolves were officially eradicated from the Treasure State many decades ago, chances are good that the predators dipped below Montana’s borders from Canada on hunting forays on a fairly regular basis. The first wolf radio-collared in Montana, in 1979, was likely a migrant from Canada, and the wolf population continued to grow in northwest Montana throughout the 1980s; sixty percent of the state’s wolves are estimated to roam there. And since the re-introduction of Canis Lupus into the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in the mid-90s, the three states bordering Yellowstone National Park have been attemp-ting to manage a ever-growing wolf population within their borders. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all have their own different approaches to managing wolves. Idaho and Montana have already had wolf hunts; Wyoming is set to have its first hunt this year, with a quota of 52 wolves, but Idaho and the Treasure State have already taken second looks at their wolf-hunting seasons.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks tentatively approved changes to the Treasure State’s wolf hunt in May, including eliminating most quotas, adding trapping, allowing the use of electronic calls, adding an archery hunt in the late summer, and extending the rifle season. Would-be wolf-trappers would not need a trapper’s license, but a wolf license only. FWP will also try and to increase the number of wolves a hunter can take in the state from one to three, which, along with electronic calling, would have to be okayed by the legislature when it convenes in January of 2013, well into the wolf hunting season. The FWP Board of Commissioners will take written comment on the proposed action until June 25.
The suggestion for a revamped wolf season comes after hunters in Montana killed 166 wolves out of a quota of 220 written into the current law, while at the same time the state wolf population is estimated to have risen by 15 percent, to a total of about 650 wolves. The goal is to reduce wolf numbers to 425, according to FWP’s wildlife bureau chief Quentin Kujala. He told the Associated Press that the hunt can be more successful without any threat to the species by eliminating quotas, except for one district bordering Yellowstone National Park and another bordering Glacier National Park.
If changes come to Montana’s wolf hunt, it will become very similar to Idaho’s, which already allows for trapping and electronic calling of wolves. Idaho wildlife officials estimate that their state’s wolf population was roughly cut in half last season after hunters and trappers bagged 372 animals, but Idaho, where two northern zones still remain open to wolf hunting, is expanding their wolf hunt even more this fall. More trapping will be allowed in the state, and Idaho hunters will be allowed to kill up to five wolves each in Northern Idaho.
Trapping of wolves excites the most controversy in both Idaho and Montana. One trapper in Idaho made headlines this past season: Nez Perce National Forest Fire Management Officer Josh Bransford posed for a picture with a trapped wolf which was posted to the Internet. A circle of bloody snow surrounded the wolf in the photo, which had been shot but not killed after being trapped. Bransford said he killed the wolf after posing for the photo. The fire management officer’s pictures are not the only controversial shots of Idaho wolf hunting that have made it to the Internet.
“These photos make it plain that the trapping and hunting of wolves being allowed by the state of Idaho are less wildlife management techniques than [the] scapegoating of wolves,” stated Michael J. Robinson, spokesperson for the New Mexico-based Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release after the photo made headlines. “This egregious torture of a wolf needs to be investigated by Idaho’s Attorney General and the Forest Service.”
Wolf-hunting opponents in Montana don’t want to see the trap added to the mix if Montana restruc-tures its hunt as expected. During a meeting with FWP commissioners in Helena in May that kicked off the public comment period, Anja Heister, executive director of the anti-trapping group Footloose Montana, asked how the Commission would enforce requirements regarding the trapping of wolves, including a ban on bait usage and the checking of traps every 48 hours. The 48-hour trap-check requirement regarding wolves is also under fire because state and federal trappers are required by law to check their traps every 24 hours. Commissioners did not respond to Heister’s enquiries.
“Trapping is an integral part of Montana’s heritage,” hunter Charlie Johnson said via a feed from the FWP’s regional office in Missoula during the packed-house public comment meeting in Helena, which witnessed 60 people speaking either in person or via feed before FWP commissioners regarding the issue of an expanded wolf hunt.
Proponents of an expanded wolf hunt outnumbered opponents by about two to one at that initial meeting, and those numbers seem to be holding as the comment period unwinds.
When it comes to wolves and hunting in Montana, it’s all about the numbers. While FWP would like to see a target population of 425 wolves, the estimated count in the state is about 650 animals, which led to the 220-wolf quota in the last hunt. But last summer FWP Chairman Bob Ream told the AP that the wolf count could actually be 10 to 30 percent higher, because some wolves are never seen during the count.
Norm Colbert, who lives near Nye, Montana, told the Pioneer that he thinks Ream is probably right regarding wolf numbers. Colbert, who tracks mountain lions, has been living in the area in the upper Rosebud River drainage (part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) since about the time wolves were re-introduced into the Park. He is quite aware of the wolves residing in his region, dubbed the Rosebud Pack. The current FWP count on the Rosebud Pack is two wolves, a number Colbert claims is low.
“We’re seeing way more tracks than the two wolves they claim,” Colbert told the Pioneer. “I think they know there are more than they thought.” Colbert said he has been working with FWP wolf specialist Abby Nelson as she tries to get a more accurate assessment of the Rosebud Pack.
“She’s been real good about talking with people to try and keep up with the numbers that are here,” said Colbert. “She’s putting out cameras to track wolves…I think they’re going about it the right way.” Colbert also said he thinks the hunt is a necessary tool in the management of Montana’s wolf population.
“I also think people want to see an expanded hunt,” he said. “The ranchers would like to see all of them gone…the neighboring ranch has lost several sheep and cows to the wolves.” Colbert added that “the elk in this area seem to be doing real well,” though he noted that the wolves are adept at stealing the kills of the mountain lions he tracks.
Montana’s wolves seem to be adept at staying under the radar when it comes to maintaining an accurate count of the animals, but regardless of what that number may be, FWP officials don’t think the wolf is in danger of being eradicated from the state because of an expanded hunt. FWP is encouraging the public to read the complete wolf hunting proposal and submit public comments until June 25, online at: fwp.mt.gov/hunting, or submit comments in writing to:
Attn: public comment
P.O. Box 200701
Helena MT 59620