Wolves on a Divided Landscape

As wolves thrive in the West, their resurgence has reignited a fierce controversy among hunters, landowners and wildlife managers

By Tristan Scott
Illustration by Dwayne Harris | Flathead Beacon

Wolves are complex critters that for centuries have inspired myths and legends while generating fierce controversies, an animal whose presence on the landscape is at once magical and maddening, captivating wildlife lovers while commanding condemnation from hunters who say the population of predators is decimating the bounty of big game in Montana.

Livestock producers living on the wild edges of wolf country have their own set of challenges, forced to keep constant vigil over calving pastures that serve as a veritable beef buffet for a pack of predators.

And wildlife managers with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the agency tasked with implementing regulatory mechanisms to manage wolves following delisting of the species from the Endangered Species Act in 2011, which granted the state full management authority of its wolf population, are caught in the middle, seeking to strike a delicate balance amid competing interests that remain bitterly divided.

In Northwest Montana, which comprises FWP’s predator-rich Region 1, the controversy surrounding wolves has reached a fever pitch in recent months, coming on the heels of yet another season of below-normal hunting harvests of deer, elk and moose.

For more than eight decades, hunters have contributed extensively to the recovery and conservation of habitat and wildlife, recognizing their role as stewards of a wild landscape and the critters that populate it.

For example, it wasn’t until hunters — and houndsmen in particular — began craving more mountain lions on the landscape that wildlife managers found the tools to successfully recover the species. When it seemed hunters were harvesting too many mountain lions, the call for lower harvest quotas didn’t come from anti-hunting groups, but from houndsmen seeking a sustainable puma population.

But wolves have remained one of the most polarizing animals in the American West, creating an ever-expanding gulf between wildlife agencies charged with managing the population and hunters who want fewer wolves.

“We feel that this is a crisis situation,” says Glenn Schenavar, a hunter from Thompson Falls who has organized a series of statewide meetings about wolf management, galvanizing sportsmen groups in an effort to reform and loosen wolf-hunting regulations. “We have a predator problem in Montana, to the point that in another three or four years the deer and elk numbers are going to be in the toilet. They’re already heading in that direction. So everybody just needs to get together and figure out a solution.”

To that end, Schenavar is emphasizing civil discourse from stakeholders on both sides of the controversy, though he acknowledges that some of the dialogue has strayed from the path of civility, particularly as FWP officials fend off pointed barbs with explanations and population estimates that are falling on deaf ears.

“This is an emotional issue, and people are just frustrated,” Schenavar said of the sportsmen and women upset over the state’s wolf management policies. “We want to work with FWP and we want a civil discourse. At our last meeting, we had 250 people gather in tiny Trout Creek, Montana. And we had a few people yell and scream and walk out. But we do want to emphasize civil discourse.”

Much of the yelling and screaming has been directed at Neil Anderson, the khaki-shirted wildlife manager who stands out like a sore thumb in the seas of plaid and camo that have populated the recent wolf-management meetings. Anderson, FWP’s wildlife program manager in Region 1, has recently become the target of a sudden rush of vitriol surrounding wolves, some of which he believes is the result of misinformation.

For example, while approximately 350 wolves roam the land managed by Region 1, they are far outnumbered by the 1,500 mountain lions hunting the same landscape, he said. Moreover, changes to habitat and back-to-back heavy winters have adversely affected ungulate populations.

“You can’t dismiss the fact that wolves have an impact,” Anderson said. “We are a predator-rich region. But there are other factors at play, and some folks don’t want to believe that.”

Changes to habitat have shifted historic elk ranges, while harsh winters have resulted in poor “recruit” of fawns, Anderson said. Changes in forest management and wildfire have driven elk herds to forage new parcels and altered tree density, affecting their distribution while vexing hunters. Still, FWP biologists who conduct winter aerial counts report seeing robust herds in line with historic population numbers, including in places like Thompson Falls and around Sanders County, where Schenavar and a coalition of sportsmen groups eager to dramatically reduce the wolf population are based.

“I don’t doubt these guys who say the hunting was better 10 or 20 years ago,” Anderson said. “But some of these folks don’t want to believe the numbers. Overall we’ve still got plenty of elk out there, just not where they’re readily accessible to hunters. The habitat is completely different. And that’s frustrating. People are passionate about this issue, and I get that.”

Revered and reviled, the wolf embodies society’s conflicted relationship with nature.

In December, a wolf beloved by Yellowstone National Park visitors nicknamed “Spitfire,” who was a direct descendant of the first wolves to repopulate the park, was shot and killed legally by a trophy hunter on the outskirts of the park, sparking outcry and prompting calls for a hunt-free buffer ringing the park.

A month later, reports began trickling in about wolves frequenting the nearby communities of Cooke City and Silver Gate, culminating in the killing of a domestic dog outside a home in Cooke City, muddying a management picture that is far from black and white.

“As with mountain lions and bears, when we see wild animals approaching people, there is concern for human safety. We don’t like to have to kill wildlife, but sometimes we don’t have any other choice,” Mark Deleray, FWP’s regional supervisor in Bozeman, said. “We are not there yet with these wolves — although they have been in and around town. We will continue to assess the situation, do our best to track current wolf behavior, and base our future actions on that assessment.”

The competing narratives create a public-relations pickle for wildlife managers trying to mount scientific evidence regarding the interaction of wolves and ungulates on the landscape while implementing hunting regulations to assist the growth of deer and elk numbers and keep wolves in check.

“The perception is that wolves are everywhere,” Anderson said. “A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but the reality is that there were good deer and elk numbers even when wolves were at peak populations. This is a dynamic issue we’re dealing with.”

The recovery of the wolf in the northern Rockies represents one of the fastest endangered species comebacks on record. In the mid 1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, 66 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs — successfully reproducing wolf packs — and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years and well distributed throughout the recovery area. The goal was achieved in 2002.

At least 566 wolves inhabited Montana at the end of 2010, in at least 108 packs and 39 breeding pairs. Statewide, the most recent population estimates show 851 wolves, down from an estimated high of more than 1,000 in 2013, according to FWP’s 2017 wolf report.

During the 2017-18 season, hunters and trappers took 254 wolves, with 166 by hunters and an additional 88 by trapping. Total wolf mortality was about 305 wolves.

Under its management plan, FWP’s minimum count goal is to verify the presence of at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs, a point that critics of wolf management have seized on.

“The state says we have 851 wolves in Montana, and we think that number is too low,” Schenavar said. “Either way, that’s way above the 150 threshold in the management plan. I’m hunting areas that I’ve hunted for 25 years, and the elk are gone. It’s frustrating to watch it going on.”

Schenavar and the members of his coalition are pushing for new legislation that would extend current trapping seasons, reduce setbacks for trapping, reimburse ethical hunters and trappers for expenses incurred while harvesting wolves, and reintroduce ungulates in areas impacted by wolves.

A substantial number of bills related to fish and wildlife are already on the legislative docket this session, and 10 of them address wolves specifically. The bills are sponsored either by Rep. Bob Brown or Sen. Jennifer Fielder, Republicans who both hail from Sanders County. They also both chair powerful committees with a high degree of influence on fish-and-wildlife issues — Brown is in charge of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, while Fielder chairs the Fish and Game Committee.

Outside of the hunting and trapping community, people are also concerned about the impact wolves are having on livestock, as well as domestic dogs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed 80 livestock losses to wolves, including 49 cattle, 12 sheep, and 19 goats, during 2017 due to wolves specifically. The total was up compared to 53 livestock losses in 2016. During 2017 the Montana Livestock Loss Board paid $64,133 for livestock that were confirmed by the federal agency as wolf kills or probable wolf kills. Fifty-seven wolves were killed to reduce the potential for further depredation. Of the 57 wolves, 42 were killed by Fish and Wildlife Service and 15 were lawfully taken by private citizens.

But most of the outcry is coming from the hunting community.

Anderson has recently been touring FWP’s Region 1 to discuss deer populations and future management strategies for hunting seasons in Northwest Montana. Much of the discussion has been productive, he said, but it’s also become increasingly dominated by hunters placing the blame squarely on wolves.

“We’re trying to find common ground so we can work together more productively. It benefits no one if we are in opposite corners of a fight,” Anderson said. “Everyone is passionate about wildlife, but it seems we cannot find common ground. That’s got to change.”

Schenavar’s group is sponsoring its next meeting on Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Red Lion in Kalispell, and has plans for other meetings in Bozeman, Helena and in the Bitterroot Valley.

“We’re not stopping,” he said. “We’re not stopping until we get something done.”

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