Wolf livestock depredation is down in Montana because of the hunting and trapping season that continues to deter wolves from highly populated agricultural areas, experts say.
In 2011, the federal government delisted wolves across western states after they were nearly decimated at the turn of the 20th century.
Under the federally approved Grey Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, wolf populations have been reestablished in northwest Montana — one of the fastest endangered species comebacks on record.
As a species in need of management, wolf conservation became the primary responsibility of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and in 2009, the state opened its first wolf hunting and trapping season.
MFWP Wolf Management Specialist Nathan Lance says population growth and depredation rates have stabilized, and it is expected that will be the case for future years, because of management tools currently in place, including livestock removal and controlled mortality through hunting. “Wolf hunting has been a tool that has thinned out the wolf population in some problematic areas closer to populated areas,” says Steve Primm, conservation director for People and Carnivores. He thinks an ethically conducted hunt can be an effective management tool. In the face of budget threats, experts also think hunting licenses could help offset the costs of management programs.
Last year, 206 wolves were killed during the hunting season. The biggest challenge in wolf management to date will come this spring, when federal oversight shifts to the state at the end of the 2016 federal fiscal year. Lance says wolf management costs have the potential to be offset with hunting license fees in a program that operates similar to Montana Fish and Game. “Managing the risk of wolf conflicts costs money,” Primm says. “It’s a long-term goal that all of the sharers figure out an equitable way to share those financial burdens of trying to implement these tools. We’re trying to figure out how to increase funding and make it more sustainable year after year.”
Lance says, “Even though the state of Montana has been involved all this time, there has been funding from the federal government to manage the wolf conservation and management program.” Less-expensive techniques will likely take the place of costly radio collaring and aerial tracking.
In 2015, there were 28 confirmed wolf kills across Montana, with the Livestock Loss Board paying out $188,000 in total depredation costs.
Montana Livestock Loss Board Executive Director George Edwards says 95 percent of ranchers turn in claims when suffering a loss, but it’s the unconfirmed kills that have the biggest impact. “The bigger loss isn’t necessarily the death loss but the reduced weight when wolves are present. It’s the ones you can’t find — the missing that are so hard to verify,” Edwards says.
Lance credits the success of wolf programs to the collaboration between ranchers, governments, hunters and conservationists alike. “Wolves are a beautiful animal to see,” says Montana born-and-raised hunting guide Andrew Wicks. “They are also by far the sneakiest, hardest thing to find in the forest — and they’re smart, too. Without proper management they are absolutely destructive, killing machines.”
Effective wolf management relies on reducing risk rather than giving a certain guarantee, Primm says. “Since delisting in Montana, I think the numbers show that wolf depredation seems to be declining, but it is still acute,” Primm says. “We’ll continue to see problems on remote rangelands where it’s difficult to keep an eye on livestock.”
“I respect the connection people feel to wolves, and I do believe that an ethically conducted hunt can be an effective management tool,” he says. “The wolves that don’t get [hunted] are going to get smart and learn to avoid populated areas, or they’re going to get very clever and wary. Hunting is going to modify their behavior.”