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.

(25) Comments

  1. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 09, 2012 6:41 pm
    Lorna, our state has been turned into a predator pit, you should have seen the Elk,Deer and Moose before wolves. I remember when they hunted the grizzly bears with just a few permits ,enough to keep the bears honest. Now we have so many bears we have hunters and campers being killed by bears,or those who are quick enough to get a shot off to save their own lives. A seven hundred and fifty pound grizzly bear was hit by a car a couple years back not to far from here. But, yes I do agree with you in principal.
  2. Lorna
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    Lorna - December 07, 2012 11:07 pm
    Kuato, you read like someone, who needs to have land and space to do whatever you want, with perhaps no regard for the big picture. I live in New Zealand, such a tiny country, with huge issues to face to protect its indigenous species, We also have many introduced game species from Europe & the Americas. What we've come to realize over the years is the importance of balance. Give the hunters a fair chance, while culling out inappropriate species from certain areas. I think, what you are saying is that you hunters have been doing this in Montana. It seems this story disturbs you, but I think hunters can also take a pat on the back for their involvement in good culls in the right areas, and then leaving other areas to let the animals/birds regenerate naturally. Would you agree?
  3. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 07, 2012 11:22 am
    I am sure it's some slick piece of propaganda put together by some Soros funded doppelganger group. Sorry I don't buy into the selective enforcement of the ESA.. You can't prove that the wolf and grizzly bear are truly endangered on this planet,or that the Montana bears(wolves)are genetically different from the tens of thousands grizzly bears(wolves) from around the globe.
  4. MTmuley
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    MTmuley - December 07, 2012 8:51 am
    I actually went to the APF in Bozeman and asked them about their intentions. I had received an email to donate and I responded with the question " do you allow public hunting on the hundreds of thousands acres you purchased?" the response back was "At this time we do." Not very comforting, so I went to Bozeman to meet with them. Speaking with one of the directors, he said to me in response to this question "right now we do, but I cannot guarentee that in 5, 10 or 20 years that will be as who knows what happens as the board of directors change over time." I thanked him for his honesty and then asked him where their money comes from, he stated the vast majority comes from the East and West Coasts as well as large metro's. This organization is controlled by folks out on the coasts and they want to see an American Serengetti devoid of human interaction, mark my words, you will not be able to hunt their within 10 years.
  5. Robert59
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    Robert59 - December 07, 2012 5:36 am
    If you really want to check it out watch the DVD Back from the Brink a Montana Wildlife Legacy. http://www.montanaswildlifelegacy.com/legacy/

    Or Montana's Wildlife Time Line. http://www.mfwpfoundation.org/information/wildlife-management-timeline/
  6. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 11:35 pm
    With what little facts or substance Lefty really has to his argument ,it is no wonder he has to lash out and put words in other people's mouths. Just because he is extremely naive doesn't make the threat any less real.
  7. reality22
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    reality22 - December 06, 2012 10:11 pm
    You are 100% correct...... Another propaganda article for the environmental leechs! As we speak there are 12 wolf law suits in the works! YES 12 Just for wolves!
  8. lefty the cowboy
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    lefty the cowboy - December 06, 2012 8:58 pm
    Quoting 'Kuato' from an earlier thread, but applied to himself: "Your diatribe is nothing but an outright pack of lies". Unbelievable! Radical right wing nut jobs claim historic facts that do not support their conspiracy fantasies never happened. Anyone who thinks careful and professional management is not the primary reason our wildlife has recovered so well either has no idea how the world works, is completely dishonest or, most likely, some of both. Of course most of the funding has come from license sales, and of course citizens have played a role in many ways... but 'Kuato's' claims here are complete nonsense, as even a quick look at the record makes clear.
  9. billy banger
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    billy banger - December 06, 2012 7:49 pm
    alarmist lies, the prairie group allows more hunting than the ranchers they bought out. I am looking foreward to hunting bison on federal lands they will donate to the public.
  10. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:41 pm
    Can you say "Hunger Games"
  11. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:39 pm
    Where is all this outside money coming from?
  12. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:37 pm
    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. have you looked the prospectus of Defenders Of Wildlife ,or any of these globalist funded groups, that are popping up like weeds, for that matter
  13. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:29 pm
    Yes! It's a good thing it's not biased., and at least written and researched by somebody who actually gets out in the mountains for some common sense observations.
  14. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:19 pm
    I agree , a little common sense goes a long ways.
  15. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:17 pm
    If you want to hear some real non sense, it's the notion that wolves are the missing species that improves the environment and helps the aspen trees grow. Let's all go out and hire wolves to do our landscaping.Dooooooooe!
  16. Kuato
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    Kuato - December 06, 2012 4:13 pm
    Unbelievable! Now the radical left wing progressives are try to claim credit for all the wilderness areas, and the abundance of wildlife that hunters ,anglers and sportsman's paid for and worked so hard to rebuild. What they are also saying is that you the local Montana citizen ,your too stupid to manage your own wildlife. And without their "omnipotent wisdom "we would have dug the place up and turned it into a open pit mine a long time ago. Environmental groups the off spring of hippies? What the heck! Come-on man give me a break! I remember the hippies living in the central park bathing in the creek, and for all their loud music and drug induced orgies..What I find really disturbing about this article ,are the dark under tones of Agenda 21 ,Y2Y and the Georgia guide stones I don't know about you ,but I am sick and tired of The Montana fish Game sticking the knife in the backs of sportsman. I am with Gary Marbut,of" Lobo Watch we need to elect the members of the FWP commision
  17. DrGonzo
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    DrGonzo - December 06, 2012 3:12 pm
    He thinks that bison - which have been an important part of the MT ecosytem for literally 10,000 years - will have a negative impact on the environment.

  18. Redhill
    Report Abuse
    Redhill - December 06, 2012 1:25 pm
    Not all conservation organizations are great contributors to the cause. Ducks Unlimited Inc for example spends less the 50% of the dollars it collects on projects while paying its executives around $250,000 per year (Google charitable organizations rating). I know of no state wildlife agency with such a record.
  19. lefty the cowboy
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    lefty the cowboy - December 06, 2012 1:04 pm
    Thanks, Mr. French, for an excellent article. I often try to make this very point... you have done it so much better. I will point out the recovery mostly dates about 40 years, since the reorganization of FW&P and the new Montana Constitution mandated environmental caretaking.
  20. lefty the cowboy
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    lefty the cowboy - December 06, 2012 12:59 pm
    uh, in two words, also nonsense.
  21. lefty the cowboy
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    lefty the cowboy - December 06, 2012 12:58 pm
    uh, in a word, nonsense.
  22. Gus2133
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    Gus2133 - December 06, 2012 12:11 pm
    Good work Brett - wel researched and written.
  23. MTmuley
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    MTmuley - December 06, 2012 8:03 am
    Unbelievable, not one word regarding the impacts that were made with funds raised by organizations such Mule Deer Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Wild Sheep Foundation and Pheasants Forever. Very little about what these organizations and their members have done for wildlife and conservation. Not just funds raised, but volunteer labor as well.
  24. BillingsCapitolofNewOldWest
    Report Abuse
    BillingsCapitolofNewOldWest - December 06, 2012 7:36 am
    The world wants bison and grizzly restored to eastern Montana. ! Ranchers gladly sell even tho they get almost free federal grazing

    We strongly support more national monuments and national parks in the Missouri breaks and Montana glaciated plains. Recent national polls 87 percent support !
  25. bigskynative
    Report Abuse
    bigskynative - December 06, 2012 6:24 am
    Who paid for elk, sheep, goat, and other wildlife restoration in Montana? Not the taxpayers....hunters mostly through permit money and they let the fish and game do it. Now we have these rabid environmental groups with deep pockets buying up land an destroying the economicls of the people who live here. The Bison restoration people are an example. They want to buy a major part of our state and turn it into a buffalo reserve. In 10 years no hunting, fishing, or trapping will be allowed on any of that land, destroying livihoods from ranching and hunting. This is called progress?

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