Wildlife has expanded across Montana in past 50 years

2012-12-06T00:10:00Z 2014-08-25T08:18:49Z Wildlife has expanded across Montana in past 50 yearsBRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montanans are living in wild times.

For proof, just look at the big picture. There are elk, bison and bighorn sheep grazing in the prairie regions of Eastern Montana where they had previously been exterminated. Large predators like grizzly bears, mountain lions and gray wolves prowl the western forests of the state after declining to record lows.

In the state’s rivers, Yellowstone and westslope cutthroat trout, as well as endangered pallid sturgeon, are being planted to enhance their declining populations. Even in towns and cities wildlife are resurging as geese crowd golf course ponds, mule deer nibble on resident’s shrubbery and ducks, rabbits and Merriam’s turkeys commonly strut across manicured lawns.

“One of the reasons I love Montana is that we are one of the few states that still has the full suite of species that were here when Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri,” said Kayhan Ostovar, a professor of biology and environmental science at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

Not all species are doing well, but many are better off or more prolific than they were 50 years ago. Some species have had to make comebacks simply because humans killed too many of them. The grizzly bear is an example. It’s estimated that by the 1930s they occupied less than 2 percent of their historic habitat. But putting aside all of the political disputes over how we got here, the possible economic effects of these steps and the history of human destruction that initially led to many species’ declines, it seems safe to say these are “the good old days” for wildlife in Montana.

“I think it is an easy argument to make that there is a wealth of wildlife out there,” said Quentin Kujala, wildlife management section chief for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Kujala is quick to qualify that the wealth of wildlife is a “big picture” view of the state. In places like the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana, where elk numbers have declined as wolf and mountain lion numbers have risen, elk advocates would disagree with the broad statement, he said. Or as Kujala put it, “Someone from the Bitterroot would cleave my head to hear me say that.”

One illustration

Consider elk as one very visible example of the expansion of a species across Montana. The large ungulates that can weigh up to 700 pounds were at one time found only in the forests of Western Montana. By 1922, their numbers had dwindled to an estimated 8,000 animals. With the enacting of game laws and more restrictive harvests, that number had grown to 40,000 in 1951. Thanks to transplanting by Fish, Wildlife and Parks of Yellowstone National Park elk, as well as natural expansion of the animals to regions of Eastern Montana, today the population is estimated at 141,000.

Kujala can track the expansion of the elk population in the state’s hunting regulations. What was once a bull-only hunt, to protect the reproductive capacity of cow elk, has now expanded to allow cow/calf permits to reduce elk populations.

Some landowners and legislators have seen the elk population boom as a bad thing, as the animals have raided haystacks and agricultural fields for food. The state has struggled with how to effectively reduce the population through its only means – hunting – as elk have taken to hiding out on private property where hunting is not allowed or severely limited.

Yet there is also a value to wildlife, such as elk. The animals are a big draw for resident and nonresident hunters who buy gas, groceries, restaurant meals and hotel rooms – often in small towns. A study cited by FWP said that “hunters, anglers and wildlife viewers had a total economic effect of over $680 million in 2001. This resulted in 9,800 jobs.”

Wildlife is also a big driver of tourism to the state. A 1995 study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research showed 43 percent of nonresidents cited wildlife as a reason for visiting, second only to scenery. FWP’s 2001 study estimated that the “9.8 million visitors to Montana represent 10 times Montana's resident population and result in 43,300 jobs for an economic impact of $2.75 billion.”

Acts for resurgence

So, why is there more wildlife in Montana now than 50 years ago? The reasons are many.

Protections contained in the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1975, helped to increase grizzly bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone Area from an estimated 174 in 1967 to about 600 today. Wolves, which had been exterminated in Montana, were transplanted to Yellowstone National Park beginning in 1995 and recolonized a portion of Glacier National Park from Canada in the 1980s. Since then, wolf packs have expanded their range outside the parks. In 2011 it was estimated that there were more than 650 wolves spread across the western portion of the state in 130 packs.

Pallid sturgeon that are native to the Yellowstone River have also had their populations boosted by listing as an endangered species. Federal hatcheries have planted juvenile pallid sturgeon in an attempt to increase their chances of survival.

Perhaps the most widely touted species recovery under the ESA was of the bald eagle. In 1963 only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained in the lower 48 states. In 1990, Montana was estimated to have only 93 breeding pairs. Loss of habitat, shooting and poisoning contributed to the near demise of the national symbol. Now, in Montana alone there are an estimated 325 nesting pairs of bald eagles. What used to be a rare bird sighting is now almost common along the state’s rivers and streams. In a success story for the ESA, in 2007 the bald eagle was delisted.

Although the act has helped restore species like grizzly bears and bald eagles, Dan Pletscher, director of the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana, sees the law as an “admission of defeat.”

“What keeps happening is we discover species rapidly declining and use the hammer of the Endangered Species Act to bring them back,” he said.

He’d prefer to see a more proactive approach to sustaining wildlife that works with willing private landowners to protect habitat and species – such as has occurred with sage grouse in Montana, Wyoming and other states – to prevent the listing of a species and all of the complications that accompany the act.

Pletscher also sees environmental groups’ fight over the delisting of gray wolves in Montana as an issue that has given the Endangered Species Act a black eye.

“When species reach recovery goals, they need to be delisted,” he said. “The wolf issue has really antagonized a lot of people.”

Wild preservation

Another benefactor for wildlife was the creation of wilderness areas with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The large swaths of habitat the act protected has set aside high mountain watersheds that feed streams vital to all species, as well as provided summer habitat to many large mammals.

“I’m not sure that act has done as much,” Pletscher said. “A lot of wilderness is high elevations that don’t support species year round.”

But the Wilderness Act may have set the tone for other land-preserving programs such as conservation easements, which prohibit future development of private property, the creation of state wildlife management areas, game preserves and winter ranges set aside to ensure forage for wildlife, as well as the creation of national monuments. Landowners have also taken part in the Conservation Reserve Program to agree not to till marginal lands for crops, providing native habitat for a variety of species. And more recently, larger conservation groups like the American Prairie Foundation have been buying up connected ranches in Eastern Montana’s Phillips County while working to restore bison, black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs and other prairie species to the ecosystem.

Other well funded and organized environmental groups have fought vigorously to restore and maintain species like wolves and grizzly bears and to expand the range for Yellowstone National Park bison in Montana. Some have battled agencies like the Forest Service over travel plans, logging proposals and prescribed fires, forcing the agency via court rulings to refine and sometimes abandon its plans.

Flower power

The environmental groups are the offspring of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s, which also fueled a greater societal awareness of humans’ impact on the natural world and prompted the development of ways to lessen the damage of industrial development, logging, mining and oil and gas drilling. More restrictive regulations on hunting, aggressive game and fish stocking programs and more science-based wildlife management have expanded big game populations – all funded by hunter and angler dollars. Greater understanding of an animal’s needs for different types of habitat, including security cover, has led to the seasonal and permanent closures of forest roads as well as the banning or restriction of motorized access to many areas used in the past.

These measures have created tensions between conservationists and developers, hikers and motorized users, not to mention the loss of jobs as logging has declined amid greater restrictions and more challenges by environmental groups.

Despite the aging of that environmental-minded group of 1960s and ’70s youth, Pletscher said he still sees students at UM that are passionate about the environment.

“I think conservation is very popular,” he said, “preservation, less so.”

He added that there needs to be a way to share the costs of programs that benefit wildlife and habitat, so that states like Montana aren’t shouldering the majority of the expense.

“If there is one problem with the Endangered Species Act, it’s that the cost and benefits are not equally shared,” Pletscher said. “It may cost city folk a half a penny to restore wolves to the landscape, but some rancher in Montana who loses sheep, it hits a lot harder than that.”

It could also be argued that Montana’s conservation of its environment and wildlife has come at a sizeable cost to its citizens’ wallets. The state’s average household income between 2006 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census, was $43,872 compared to a national average of $51,914 – a difference of more than $8,000 a year. In comparison Wyoming, which has been more open to extractive industries like coal, oil and gas development, had an average household income of $53,802 for the same time period – almost $10,000 more a year than Montana.

Good or bad?

So are these the best of times or the worst of times?

“There are positives and negatives to everything,” Pletscher said.

While wolves may have reduced some populations of elk, they have also boosted tourism and created a healthier ecosystem, Ostovar said.

“Ecologically (wolves) are even more important as they regulate small predators on the landscape like coyotes,” he added. “There have definitely been changes in wildlife distribution that probably has impacted some outfitters in places. However, we may just need to adjust our expectations around hunting – should hunting be easy or a kill guaranteed over one weekend out and 300 yards from the road?”

And there could be challenges ahead that would make all of the work to restore species even more difficult, possibly even fruitless. Climate change, although denounced by many, has the potential to radically alter entire landscapes, wiping out vegetation and therefore habitat for species, increasing the incidence and intensity of wildfires and reducing the amount of water for agriculture, recreation, industry and community water supplies.

Another threat is the spread of existing or new diseases, such as chronic wasting disease or West Nile virus, that could severely reduce specific species. Invasive species, such as weeds and wildlife, are other more insidious threats that have the potential to displace native plants and animals.

But Pletscher sees an even greater threat.

“There are 7 billion people on this planet,” he said, “2.5 billion are in two countries in Asia. That population level is scary. Consumption is increasing worldwide, and we’re a consumptive species.”

Still, he remains optimistic that Montanans and Americans will continue to help wildlife and their habitat. Ostovar agreed, seeing this period as a time of transition in conservation.

“I hope and think we are entering a new era of wildlife with more opportunities to restore ecosystems and manage the landscape in more intelligent ways,” he said. “There is a lot of political division right now. However, hunters/conservationists represent both political parties and share a common goal of maintaining wildlife on a landscape.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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