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Wolf management

by Warren Illi
| March 16, 2023 12:00 AM

Our legislators are busy at work trying to save Montana taxpayers some money. So let me give them an idea to save money, perhaps millions of dollars per year. So far, the 2023 legislative session seems to be quiet with respect to wolf management. This is in sharp contrast to the 2021 legislative session when Republicans first had full control of both branches of the Legislature and a new conservative Republican governor. The governor, like many, perhaps most, elk and deer hunters, did not seem to be overly in love with wolves. So, the conservative Republican Legislature passed several new bills that expanded wolf hunting and trapping opportunities. Many of these new laws were similar to proposed laws that were passed in prior legislative sessions controlled by Republicans, but vetoed by a Democratic governor. I don’t really understand why Republicans and Democrats seem to have different views on wildlife management.

Not only did our Republican governor support expanded wolf hunting and trapping, but he was an active participant in reducing the wolf population. During a weekend trapping expedition, he actually trapped a wolf just north of Yellowstone Park. The wolf lovers and Democrats tried to make political hay from that wolf trapping incident. The governor trapped a wolf that was part of a research project in Yellowstone Park! Unfortunately for that wolf, the wolf wandered out of the protective boundaries of the park and stepped on the governor’s trap. Well done, governor!

The governor did commit a small sin because he had not completed the required Montana wolf trapping short course prior to going wolf trapping. So, he was issued a warning ticket by Fish, Wildlife and Park, a state agency that he controls. He promptly competed the wolf trapping course.

When the 2021 Legislature considered and passed a number of more liberal wolf trapping and hunting laws, the wolf lovers claimed these more liberal hunting and trapping laws would disseminate wolf numbers. Guess what? Wolf kills by trappers and hunters increased, but only by a small number. For each year during the five years prior to the new liberal hunting and trapping rules, wolf kills by hunters and trappers was about 275-300 wolves each year. With the new rules, the wolf harvest levels climbed to about 430 wolves, including some wolf kills by state and federal officials because of livestock depredation.

Anyway, the goals of the new laws did accomplish the legislative goal of reducing wolf numbers, but certainly did not decimate wolf numbers as some predicted.

One of the problems with estimating the number of wolf packs and wolf numbers is the extreme difficulty of estimating wildlife populations when you have a small population of wide ranging animals that are spread over a vast expanse of wild habitat. That same difficulty of estimating wolf populations is similar why wolves are difficult to find and kill by hunters and trappers. Just imagine the difficulty of trying to get a wolf that ranges over several hundred square miles of home range to step on a trap that has only a 3” x 3” trap pan.

I hate to think of the millions and millions of dollars that state and federal agencies, and universities have spent on wolf management studies. Because wolves are listed as a federal threatened or endangered species, except in Montana, Idaho and Alaska, state agencies need to develop lots of biological data to keep wolves off the federal endangered species list.

I find it strange that the wolf’s first cousin, the coyote and other wildlife critters like fox, skunks and raccoons are unprotected animals in Montana. They can be hunted and trapped year-long. They have no state or federal protection, yet they are very abundant.

I suggest that wolves will always be plentiful in Montana, even with no federal or state protection, as long as the taking (killing) of these animals is limited to traditional hunting and trapping. Wolves were wiped out in Montana, not because of hunting or trapping, but because of the use of poison. No one is suggesting using poison for wolf control.

Here’s my idea to save vast sums of wildlife money. Montana has wolves scattered over a very wide area of Montana. I think we should consider designating a large geographic area, several hundred square miles, where year-round hunting and trapping of wolves would be permitted. No hunting or wolf trapping licenses would be required. I would bet that after five or ten years of unregulated wolf hunting and trapping, this unregulated hunting and trapping area would have as many wolves as similar wolf regulated habitat. If I am wrong, this area of depleted wolves would quickly repopulate with wolves from the surrounding wolf populations.

This idea will never be tested because it could lead to the unemployment of wolf managers even though it could save lots of taxpayer money!