Local officials frustrated with state over wolf management

Despite the removal of wolves from the Endangered Species List, their management remains a hot topic in southwest Montana.

Last week, Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz sent a letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier and Gov. Brian Schweitzer asking them to direct funding allocated during the recent legislative session toward more active wolf management and livestock protection.

“Our ranchers and sheep men need help now!” Schulz wrote. “Montana’s single, most stable business, Agriculture, is very much at risk. Your help and your redirection of the authorized funding to wolf management on the ground is imperative.”

Central to his request is funding allocated by Senate Bill 348, which was sponsored by Sen. Debby Barrett from Dillon and signed into law this past spring.

The bill allocated $900,000 to FWP for wolf management – specifically for wolf collaring and lethal action. The bill requires the agency to put collars on “at least one wolf in each wolf pack that is active near livestock or near a population center in areas where depredations are chronic or likely.”

However, since the bill went into effect July 1, the agency seems less responsive to producer’s needs, Barrett said.

“They are not responding to the counties, to sportsmen, to livestock attacks,” Barrett said. “Wolves in my district, Beaverhead and Madison Counties, have been ferocious this summer.”

Locally, Schulz has heard about ranchers struggling with wolves in the Tobacco Root Mountains, Madison Valley and Upper Ruby Valley and Gravelly Mountains. These struggles are making it harder for producers to make it from year to year, he said.

This is particularly frustrating when FWP made the claim that wolf management would improve once the wolves were delisted, Schulz said. Now that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“With state control the FWP is not being proactive about this at all,” he said. “I’d like them first to follow up with what legislature intended when they appropriated the $900,000.”

Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List last spring. Since then, their management has been a function of FWP as dictated by the Montana Wolf Management Plan.

Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the FWP in Helena doesn’t agree with the characterization that FWP is doing less management now the wolf is delisted.

The agency is continuing to respond to livestock conflicts just as it has in the past, Aasheim said.

“We have been if anything again, more flexible,” he said.

It used to be that FWP officials would try to get a radio collar on a wolf after the first livestock depredation from a pack. Then their response expanded to the removal of a maximum of two wolves after the first depredation, Aasheim said.

Now that has expanded, in some cases, to allowing the removal of any wolf that returns to a livestock kill within three days of the incident, he said.

Active wolf management is a broad term that involves research, trapping, monitoring, law enforcement, collaring and lethal action. In much of this activity, FWP partners with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, an agency that has a long history in helping the livestock industry deal with predator issues.

Recently the federal government has cut funding to Wildlife Services, Aasheim said. But that hasn’t changed FWP’s goals of being responsive to depredation activities and actively managing wolf populations. And the state is in a much better position to be responsive to wolf problems than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, who had management authority when the wolf was still a federally protected animal.

“That’s the reason we have argued consistently that the state should have management authority,” he said. “Now whether people agree with our management is another issue.”

But management has to include removing more wolves, Barrett said. She’d like to see FWP spend the $900,000 allocated in SB 348 on contracting with USDA Wildlife Services to remove wolves creating problems for livestock producers and wildlife populations.

“We’re dealing with a whole lot more wolves that we ever agreed to,” Barrett said. “That’s the first thing they should be doing … bringing the number down.”

And though the impact of wolves on livestock producers is important, the impact of wolves on local wildlife populations is also troubling, Schulz said.

In his letter to Maurier and Schweitzer, he wrote: “Numerous statistics show that the elk numbers in our region are rapidly being reduced and wildlife habits are changing to where they spend more time on private acres creating even more economic and crop loss for producers as well as difficulty for the hunter. We fail to understand that while this is occurring, the number of hunters going to the hills is less and less. This in turn means fewer dollars spent in the fall on Main Street.”

It’s important to remember, Aasheim said, that FWP is having an expansive wolf hunt this fall to specifically address wolf numbers. The agency has set a quota of 220 wolves, which it predicts will reduce the statewide population by 25 percent.

The state is also trying to be more focused with the wolf hunt, having 14 different hunting units for wolf season.

“We’re going to see what happens after the hunting season, hopefully we’re going to address some of these depredation problems,” he said.

And on the other side of the coin, FWP hears complaints from wolf advocates, who continue to be concerned that state management will mean the decimation of the population.

While some livestock producers may not be aware of the wolf packs that are being removed because of depredation concerns, wolf advocates know.

“The folks who think we’re being too aggressive are well aware that in some cases we’re taking more packs,” Aasheim said.

Ultimately, other than the wolf hunt, changes in wolf management since the state took over management has been subtle, he said. The agency is more focused on determining management strategies and depredation responses on a case-by-case basis.

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