Gazette opinion: Time to strike a better balance on wolves

2013-07-10T00:00:00Z 2014-03-17T13:29:08Z Gazette opinion: Time to strike a better balance on wolves The Billings Gazette
July 10, 2013 12:00 am

Wildlife management is a constant balancing act. Nowhere is that balance more difficult and more closely scrutinized than in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Last winter, after several research-collared wolves were killed by hunters near Yellowstone Park, a Gazette opinion called for Montana hunting regulations to discourage the shooting of radio-collared wolves. One collared wolf left the park for the first time ever last winter. Six hours later, it was shot dead — legally.

Our January editorial also called for restricting wolf hunting and trapping in areas on Yellowstone Park’s border.

Since then, the Montana Legislature passed a law that forbids state officials from putting the park border area off limits to hunters.

When the Montana wolf season ended on Feb. 28, 225 wolves had been killed. Forty-one were killed in Park and Gallatin counties near the Yellowstone Park border, according to data collected by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

In comments submitted to the FWP Commission, Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk described the impact that hunting and trapping has had on the park wolf population:

“Wolf numbers have decreased from approximately 98 in 2003 to 27 currently,” Wenk wrote. The FWP proposal to apply a quota of seven wolves to Hunting District 316 on the park border near Gardiner “could lead to excessive harvest of wolves from packs living primarily in the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park. … a single pack could be eliminated or breeding pairs from multiple packs could be killed.”

One goal of Montana’s wolf management plan for 2013 is to reduce the number of wolves in the state. However, the plan should emphasize reducing wolf numbers where livestock depredation is a problem.

Livestock conflicts

So far this year in Montana, FWP counts 26 cattle and 19 sheep killed by wolves. Authorities have killed 34 wolves and reported 17 other wolf deaths not from legal hunting. Only one incident with one “probable” killing of one cow occurred in the vicinity of Yellowstone Park.

Yet FWP Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion told the Associated Press this week that he wants to avoid treating wolves that come out of the park differently than others.

FWP has authority to set quotas in various hunting districts. Quotas must be set to encourage taking of wolves that threaten livestock. Quotas must be set to carefully limit the taking of wolves that draw throngs of tourists to Yellowstone year round.

Tourist, hunter dollars

Certainly, hunting is an important factor in the regional economy and the money hunters spend is welcome. And Montana also welcomes the tourist dollars — those visitors who want to see and hear wolves in the wild.

Many folks living outside of the Montana-Wyoming region have a hard time understanding why people want to kill wolves. Many folks living in our region can’t understand why anybody wants to keep a single wolf alive.

Between those points of view lies the balance that is essential to preserving the native wolf population in public parks and wilderness while carefully controlling it elsewhere.

Wildlife doesn’t recognize park boundaries. Thus, people must recognize that to sustain a wolf population in Yellowstone, some accommodation must be made in managing the species in adjoining areas of Montana.

That is the balance the FWP Commission must strive for when it meets Wednesday to consider rules for hunting and trapping wolves this fall and winter.

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