BILLINGS – Wildlife officials in Montana will consider changes to the state’s inaugural wolf hunt after hunters killed nine of the predators in just three weeks along the border of Yellowstone National Park.
More than 1,300 gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana this spring following a costly federal restoration effort.
Hunting has been promoted as a way to keep the population of the fast-breeding species in check and reduce wolf attacks on livestock. At least 48 wolves have been killed since Sept. 1 by hunters in the two states.
However, all but two of the 11 killed in Montana came from a small portion of the Absaroka (ab-SOHR’-ka)-Beartooth Wilderness, along the northern border of Yellowstone. Four of those wolves were from Yellowstone’s Cottonwood Pack, including the group’s breeding female.
Concerned about the heavily concentrated killing, state wildlife commissioners suspended hunting last week in the area.
On Tuesday, commissioners will consider a range of additional responses, from raising or reallocating the state’s seasonal quota of 75 wolves to shutting down the hunting season altogether in some areas.
“We’ve missed the mark a little this first year,” said Carolyn Sime, lead wolf biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Shooting a wolf, particularly in the sparsely vegetated Absaroka-Beartooth area, was proving easier than expected, she said.
There is no livestock in the wilderness area, meaning the killing of wolves there gives little or no help to ranchers suffering losses from wolf attacks. In addition, critics say the shootings could choke off the number of young wolves leaving Yellowstone to establish packs outside the park.
“Yellowstone can’t be a source for wolves to colonize other areas if they get blown away right at the boundary,” said Norman Bishop, a former Yellowstone park ranger now on the board of the Wolf Recovery Foundation.
Sime said that with wolves now firmly established in many areas of the state, Yellowstone’s importance as a source of wolves has diminished. There were 89 packs in Montana at the end of 2008.
“From a biological perspective, it’s a non-issue,” Sime said, noting the death of nine wolves was unlikely to have much impact on the broader population.
Environmentalists countered that the concentrated shootings in the Absaroka-Beartooth area showed the Idaho and Montana hunts were too hastily planned. They also decried the loss of wolves from the park, one of two areas where the animals were reintroduced beginning in 1995 after being absent for decades.
In Idaho, which has about 800 wolves, wildlife officials say their hunt has gone more smoothly. Thirty-seven wolves had been killed in Idaho through Sunday, spread across 11 of the state’s 12 wolf-hunting zones.
Bob Ream, a Montana wildlife commissioner from Helena who spent more than 20 years researching wolves, said in hindsight it was unwise to allow so many wolves to be killed on land adjacent to Yellowstone.
But because wolves breed so prolifically, increasing as much as 30 percent a year, he said any harm done likely would be temporary.
“There’s plenty of wolves to fill in for those nine, either from the park or other parts of the Absaroka-Beartooth,” Ream said.
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