Closing Range

Howling Lies

If human poachers were running amok, taking the same amount of game as wolves, how would you react?

By Dave Skinner

Used to be I was a pretty moderate guy, downright reasonable. In fact, when Clinton Administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt presided over the 1994-or-so reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone, I wasn’t too wound up.

For one thing, the Canuck wolves would arrive in Yellowstone under Section 10j of the Endangered Species Act, which had been added to the ESA in 1982 in order to “ease local residents’ concerns” regarding species re-introductions. Under 10j, even if species are generally “endangered,” re-introduced animals would be managed under less-stringent “threatened” regulations and further considered “nonessential, experimental” – which reasonable people (distinct from certain federal judges, environmental groups, and lawyers) presume to mean “Try it and see if it works.” If not, it remains possible to keep trying.

Alongside Yellowstone, I could even accept the idea that Diane Boyd’s wolves would simultaneously expand down the North Fork from Canada, just so long as those wolves didn’t munch out the elk, moose and deer – or cows. At some happy point, even these “natural migrant” wolves would get far enough south to meet and mate with the Yellowstone fuzzies. Voila, one population, objectively neither threatened nor endangered, duly delisted, then managed in a socially acceptable manner. Everybody wins, right?

The official federal narrative was, after 10 breeding pairs among no fewer than 100 wolves in each of three states (Montana, Wyoming and Idaho), a 30-pair, 300-wolf aggregate safely on the landscape, the process of delisting and subsequent state takeovers of wolf management would ensue. States would assume not just “depredation management” of problem wolves and wolf packs, but regulated hunting.

That first threshold was more than met in 2006 with over 300 “minimum count.” For a little cushion, the population floor was re-set to 15 breeding pairs in each of three states, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

We all know what has happened since. Turns out the initial promises by Secretary Babbitt and his minions were howling lies, deliberate deception intended to get animals in situ, so wolves could breed and spread unchecked as long as possible.

Since 2009, Montana alone has had over 1,000 estimated wolves (a hard count is impossible), with the lowest “minimum count” being 450 in 2016. That’s way, way over what the general public was led to expect, and the negative impacts upon hunting are undeniable.

I just got back from a few days of post-fire “support” in the Crazy Mountains northeast of Livingston. Our morning and evening twilight commute up and down the Shields River Valley was not just past, but through so much freaking wildlife, I still can’t believe it. There were scads of elk, deer (both kinds), moose, raptors and coyotes, including a handful of trophies (or at least wall-hangers) in each ungulate category.  

If anything, it was a better show than the last time I was in that country, elk season 1981, when my partner got his sixer. Took me back 40 years … how could that possibly happen?

After all, the International Wolf Center explains the main “prey for [Montana wolves] are elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and beaver.” Duh, never mind plenty of peered and anecdotal materials to support the conclusion that wolves, once established as a “keystone species,” utterly dominate take and recruitment of co-located prey species. Go ahead, Google Ripple and/or Hebblewhite, their papers will pop up quickly.

So why is the Shields country stuffed with beaucoup ungulates and prey? Simple. While western Montana has beaucoup wolves, pack-location maps show only a handful of packs establishing north of Interstate 90 or east of US 287. In 2008-9, there WAS a pack on the northeast flank of the Crazies, the Lebo Peak pack, but not in 2016, and obviously (to me) not today.

Bottom line is, wolves were politically allowed to “flourish” in much of Montana to the point where they take so much of prey “recruitment,” in wolf-dominated areas, there’s little to nothing left for hunters, subsistence or trophy. If human poachers were running amok, taking the same amount of game as wolves, how would you react? With every tool you have, precisely as our Legislature voted to do.