This week marks the conclusion of the highly contentious yet most productive gray wolf hunting season in Montana.
As of Feb. 25, hunters and trappers reported killing 219 wolves during the state’s third season and first that allowed trapping, which was 53 more than last year’s total. The general rifle season began Oct. 20 and trapping opened Dec. 15. The last day to hunt wolves is Thursday, Feb. 28.
With expanded hunting options and recently modified regulations, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has made up ground in its pursuit of reducing the wolf population.
Hunters shot 128 wolves and trappers caught 91, according to FWP. A total of 42 were killed in the two eastern districts, which reach from Butte and Bozeman to the bordering Dakotas. The rest were taken across Western Montana, including 77 in districts northwest through Kalispell to the corner of the state.
“Certainly it’s a step in the right direction,” FWP Spokesperson Ron Aasheim said.
FWP plans to release an updated population estimate in March. At the end of last season, the agency said there were at least 653 wolves in 130 verified packs and 39 breeding pairs in Montana. There were believed to be at least 1,774 wolves living in the Rocky Mountain region.
Since the species was delisted in the Northern Rockies, several states have set out to manage recovered populations amid growing concerns among hunters and ranchers who have reported livestock deprivation and decreased big game herds, such as elk.
In Montana’s first regulated season in 2009, hunters tagged 72 wolves between Sept. 15 and Nov. 16. FWP closed the season two weeks early to avoid exceeding the quota of 75 wolves.
The 2010 wolf hunt was blocked by a federal court order amid legal opposition. But after review, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy upheld the 2009 delisting, a decision that was further solidified by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2012.
Hunters killed 166 wolves during last year’s season, which included an archery season in September and general rifle season from Oct. 22 to Feb. 15. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved a two-month extension in attempt to draw closer to the targeted quota of 220.
Instead of the wolf count dropping to FWP’s goal of roughly 450, the agency said the minimum population actually grew another 15 percent last year. As a result, the FWP commission announced plans to further loosen hunting regulations last spring. The changes included removing a statewide quota and allowing for trapping.
The state lifted more regulations this month when an updated management program received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock. The changes, which went into effect on Feb. 13, allowed hunters to purchase up to three tags instead of one; lowered the nonresident license price from $350 to $50; authorized the use of electronic calls; removed the requirement to wear hunter’s orange after big game season ended; and allowed hunters to use a license 24 hours after purchase instead of five days.
The legislation was amended to prohibit FWP from banning wolf hunts near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
“This legislation leaves management of the gray wolf where it belongs, in the hands of scientists, not politicians,” Gov. Bullock said afterward.
Mike Leahy, the regional director for the nonprofit wildlife advocacy organization Defenders of Wildlife, described the expanded regulations as unnecessary and damaging to the species. Leahy remains concerned about other legislation, particularly a proposal to give management control to local counties instead of FWP.
“Counties don’t have the resources or expertise to manage wildlife. It’s a state function and should be kept at the state level,” he said.
Nevertheless, Leahy remains staunchly opposed to the state’s current methods.
“We disagree with the whole framework of wolf management right now,” he said. “We think the population should be managed and that can include a sustainable level of hunting. But most of the changes are aimed at trying to drive the wolf population down.”
While the effect that wolves have had on big game herds remains up for debate, the amount of livestock killed has shrunk since 2009. Residents filed 122 claims for lost livestock on ranches across Montana in 2012, including 77 cattle and 42 sheep, according to data from the state’s Department of Livestock.
In 2009, the first full year that the state investigated and gathered claims, a total of 370 claims were filed. The state paid out $144,995. There were 175 claims in 2010 and 95 in 2011.
Bullock has asked FWP to improve education outreach to discourage hunters from killing collared wolves being studied near national parks.
There were 11 collared wolves killed in Montana this season, according to FWP.
Bullock has also expressed support for reconvening the state’s wolf advisory council, which in the past helped steer management decisions.
Before this year, Montana was one of only three states that managed wolves, along with Idaho and Alaska. This winter three other Western states launched hunting seasons with the prospect of a fourth.
Minnesota held its first wolf season, which included trapping, this fall and winter. That state’s Department of Natural Resources closed the season on Jan. 3 after hunters killed 413 wolves. The DNR estimates the state’s population to be “stable” at 3,000.
Wisconsin similarly held an inaugural wolf hunt and closed the season Dec. 24 after all quotas were met with a total of 117 wolves.
Hunters in Wyoming killed 43 wolves, nine shy of the quota, in the first hunt since the federal government reintroduced wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem in the early 1990s.
Idaho, which allows hunters to shoot up to five wolves and trap up to five wolves, is in the middle of its second hunting season. Hunters and trappers have taken a combined 232 wolves so far. The season closes March 31.
Wildlife advocates in Michigan are collecting signatures to stop a proposed hunting season. In December Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law giving the state’s Natural Resources Commission the ability to decide whether to install a game season. Opponents are trying to gather more than 160,000 signatures to place a referendum on the 2014 election ballot that could overturn the law. The state’s wolf population is estimated to be roughly 700.
For a final count from Montana’s wolf hunting season, visit fwp.mt.gov/hunting/planahunt/huntingGuides/wolf/default.html.
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