HELENA — Montana wildlife regulators rejected a proposal Wednesday to double the number of gray wolves that can be hunted or trapped in an area just north of Yellowstone National Park from two to four.
Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said keeping the status quo was a compromise of sorts between hunters and ranchers who want to see more wolves killed, and non-hunting groups who want to prohibit killing wolves next to Yellowstone altogether.
It does not make a difference to the overall wolf or elk populations around Yellowstone whether the hunting quota in that relatively small area is two or four, Vermillion said. But, he added, the matter has become less about the biology and science behind the species' health and more about the emotional conflict between the competing groups.
"We're not talking about the future of wolves in Montana. We're not talking about the future of elk in Montana. Both are very secure," Vermillion said.
There are no limits to the number of wolves that hunters and trappers can kill in the state except for areas adjacent to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The area under consideration Wednesday covers about 250 square miles north of the park around the town of Gardiner, a popular staging point for wolf watchers in Yellowstone.
About 29 wolves a year use the area, Montana wildlife officials said.
Hunters complain that wolves kill too many elk that they would like to hunt in that area, and they wanted to increase the quota to reduce the wolf population. Others, including wildlife advocates and National Park Service officials, had argued that wolves that range in and around Yellowstone need additional protections.
Even with the smaller quota, too many wolves have been killed once they crossed the park's border into Montana, wildlife advocates say.
Officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had initially proposed tripling the quota to six wolves, but the commission rejected that plan in May. Agency officials then returned with the proposal to increase the quota to four wolves, which also was rejected.
No hunting is allowed in the park, but wolf hunting has been legal in neighboring Montana since 2011 when the animals lost their endangered status. Montana wildlife commissioners tried to set up a no-kill buffer zone around Gardiner in 2012, but a state judge struck down those restrictions after ranchers and property rights advocates sued.
A quota of four wolves in the Gardiner area was established in 2013. That was reduced to three animals in 2014 and two last year.