Montana Asks Feds for Limited Wolf Hunt

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission will ask the federal government for a permit that would allow a limited wolf hunt in southwestern Montana because of the threat to the elk population there.

A federal judge reinstated endangered species protections for the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho this summer, but the state wildlife agency can ask for such a hunt in small areas where wolves are deemed an experimental species, such as the West Fork of the Bitterroot River.

The agency proposes to shoot 12 of the estimated 24 wolves in that area south of Darby. The state agency would choose 100 “agents of the state” from a pool of hunters who apply.

The wolves preying on elk calves in the region have contributed to a dangerously low ratio of calves to cows, wildlife officials said.

Before 2007, there were at least 25 calves per 100 cows. Over the last two years, the average has been 10 calves per 100 cows, said Mike Thompson, FWP regional wildlife manager for the Bitterroot area.

“We feel it’s something we can’t ignore,” Thompson said. “Those numbers won’t sustain a population over time.”

The FWP commission approved the proposal on Thursday. It will send a permit application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that includes with 162 public comments and five “peer reviews” of the proposal prepared by experts in Alaska, Michigan and Minnesota.

FWP wildlife chief Ken McDonald said his agency has received comments both for and against the proposal. Those who were against generally said they were concerned about killing wolves to benefit elk and hunters, or else they believed that wolf control wouldn’t stop elk numbers from declining.

McDonald said it could take six months or longer for the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve or reject the application for a permit.

Idaho has applied for a similar permit to reduce the wolf population in the Lolo area just across the Continental Divide, but federal officials have told them the application must first go through a lengthy environmental assessment through the National Environmental Policy Act process, McDonald said.

The same is likely to happen with Montana’s application, he said.

That would mean a hunt is not likely to take place until next winter. The proposal had originally called for a hunt at the beginning of 2011.

Federal officials have already denied a previous Montana request for a much larger “conservation hunt” of gray wolves in response to increasing attacks on livestock and elk.

The number of wolves has skyrocketed since 66 wolves were brought from Canada to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. The population hit the original recovery benchmark of 300 animals a decade ago and at least 1,700 wolves now roam parts of six states.

The Fish and Wildlife Service turned wolf management over to Montana and Idaho last year while leaving endangered species protections for wolves Wyoming because of that state’s “shoot on sight” policy for wolves outside the Yellowstone National Park area.

A federal judge this summer ruled the species could not be divided along political lines and restored endangered species protections in Montana and Idaho.