VIRGINIA CITY – The Madison County Tea Party hosted retired wildlife biologist Jim Beers at the Virginia City Community Center on Saturday to discuss conservation and management issues surrounding the regions growing gray wolf population.
The discussion focused on misconceptions about species’ behavior, safety hazards they pose to humans and problems with the states’ current management plan since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990’s. One myth that Beers sought to dispel is the belief that wolves will not attack people.
“Don’t let them tell you that doesn’t happen, it’s not possible. It does happen,” Beers said.
He went on to cite numerous cases in North America, Europe and Russia where humans have in fact been attacked or killed by wolves.
“It happens more often when they’re not hunted, when they’re not bothered,” Beers said. “It happens when they start getting habituated, you start seeing them around the houses regularly.”
Beers proceeded to compare wolf management strategies in countries like Finland and Russia, where there is more wilderness habitat to support a higher density wolf population. While some aspects of the management strategies were irrelevant, such as the availability of firearms for predator control, others closely mirrored the current situation with wolves in southwest Montana.
“You really can’t count wolves,” Beers said. “If you’ve got an index you can make projections, you can make guesses, you take what data you’ve got but you can’t come up with big numbers over a large area.”
Another concern about wolves is their ability to spread disease. Beers said that illness such as rabies, brucellosis, chronic wasting disease and others can all be carried by wolves. Wolves primarily transmit disease through feces, and when they come out of the wilderness and encroach on nearby ranchlands, they pose yet another serious threat to humans.
“You get something in wolves and they’re four miles over there tomorrow, six miles over there the next day, and you didn’t even know they went through your pasture at two in the morning,” Beers said. “They’re a very, very effective vector for diseases and infections.”
Harmful bacteria can remain in the fecal matter for weeks after the animal has moved through an area, Beers said, and can be easily picked up by domestic dogs and other household pets.
Part of the state’s solution to the growing local wolf population has been a limited, licensed hunting season, but this has shown mixed results with mixed reactions from area stock growers, he said. Beers’ Russian counterparts have suggested that effective control of a wolf population requires the removal of 50 to 75 percent of the population annually for five to 10 years.
“When you’re only killing a few of them, you’re doing them a favor,” he said. “There are fewer of them to go through the winter, less stress. They’re going to have more young, they’ll be in a healthier condition.”
While there is no easy or immediate solution to effectively controlling the local wolf population, Beers suggested a few places to begin. He said it begins with restoring management authority to the local government and leads to reform within state and federal conservation bureaucracies. He also said that recreating a state presence in the legislative process in Washington D.C. will play a crucial role in effectively managing local wolf populations.
“Where they brought those wolves from doesn’t look anything like the lower 48 states,” Beers said. “The idea of managing any these animals for any human benefit has been lost.”