Last month, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) issued proposed rules for a 2013-14 wolf hunting and trapping season. Although wolves in Montana are still fresh off the endangered species list, and the state's wolf population declined by 4% last year, FWP’s proposed season is – by far – its most aggressive yet.
In no uncertain terms, the agency explains that its singular goal is to further reduce Montana’s wolf population. To achieve that, it says, more than half of the state’s wolves must die. “Mortality levels exceeding 50% are generally required to initiate a population decline,” FWP explains. “To be clear, the current management intent at this time is to reduce the population.”
FWP proposes to implement this “management” plan by:
- extending the general hunting season from four and a half to six and a half months (September 15 to March 31);
- increasing per-person bag limits from one wolf to five;
- continuing to allow trapping of wolves (which causes prolonged suffering and results in significant capture of non-target species);
- allowing wolves to be shot over baited traps;
- allowing the use of electronic calls (some of which mimic the cries of pups);
- allowing pregnant or lactating female wolves to be killed;
- allowing multiple wolves, and possibly entire packs, that reside primarily within Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks to be killed; and
- maintaining no statewide and only two hunting district quotas.
That is not management, it’s slaughter—and for no good reason. FWP offers only three justifications for proposing such severe measures: 1) to reduce livestock depredations; 2) to protect ungulate populations that are “performing poorly”; and 3) because some members of the public want fewer wolves. None of these reasons warrant the type of indiscriminate, blanket approach to killing wolves FWP proposes; in fact, such an approach may be counter-productive.
For example, studies show that indiscriminate, non-selective hunting of predators is unlikely to reduce, and may actually increase, livestock depredations. This is because hunting does not target problem animals, may displace predators from areas of low human use (e.g., wilderness) to areas of higher human use (e.g., ranches), and could disrupt pack social organization, leading to increased breeding (more hungry mouths to feed), and decreased hunting efficiency (predators will look for easier prey).
With respect to “poorly performing” ungulate populations: in 2012, Montana’s statewide elk population was 22,000 over state management goals. The vast majority of elk hunting districts in the state are at or above objective (see map below). Further, FWP must acknowledge that many factors other than wolves affect ungulate populations, such as habitat loss, development, severe winter weather, other predators, fire suppression, drought, and hunter harvest. Also, FWP should consider the many ways wolves benefit elk and keep their herds healthy, such as by culling weak, injured and unhealthy animals, and possibly slowing the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Perhaps the primary reason FWP wants to kill so many wolves is to try to appease the only two constituencies it explicitly recognizes in the document that outlines its proposed 2013-14 season: hunters and livestock owners. But this fails to recognize the many forward-thinking hunters and livestock owners who want to share the landscape with wolves, not eliminate them. FWP must also manage for their interests, as well as the interests of Montana’s many eco-tourism operators, wildlife photographers, and members of the public who want to see more predators in our state, not fewer.
A reasoned, targeted, incremental approach to managing gray wolves in Montana makes sense. The rash, biased, indiscriminate hunting and trapping season FWP has proposed does not.