The complicated balance of wolf-conservation.
Less than three months into the 2021 wolf-hunting season, the National Park Service called out Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) for a sudden imbalance in wolf management. Wolf-harvest quotas in two Wolf Management Units (WMU) north of the Park—313 and 316—leapt from two animals to a whopping 85. This resulted in 12 Yellowstone wolves being killed among the 21 total wolves in those districts.
“Quotas were originally put in place not only to protect the Yellowstone wolf population, but also to protect the corresponding economic and tourism interests of Montana that are derived from wolf-watching in the park,” wrote Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly, in a letter to Governor Gianforte. “While you understandably expect me to consider the impacts of Yellowstone decision-making on Montana, I am asking that you similarly consider the impacts of Montana’s decision-making on Yellowstone.”
There are a lot of interests to balance, and it’s not an easy job.
As Sholly pointed out in his letter, neither of these districts had a history of wolf conflicts. According to FWP’s data, wolf-related depredation to livestock in these areas has been minimal, if any, and the region’s elk population is over state objectives. Wolves, as an apex predator, play a role in sustaining healthy elk populations. And according to FWP, wolf populations in Montana are stable, with over 1,000 wolves roaming the state. The estimated number of packs has hovered around 200 for several years.
There are a lot of interests to balance, and it’s not an easy job. But the 2021 Montana legislature decided it wanted to further its role in that job when it passed a bill giving itself greater authority over wolf management. Montana’s elected officials are now entrusted to incorporate wildlife biology with social and economic pressures, avoiding political bias, as the Montana’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan promises.
We’ll believe it when we see it. Despite high elk populations and low wolf conflicts, the legislature has directed the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, which controls much of FWP’s policies and practices, to manage wolves with the intent to reduce their numbers. Though the commission appears to have heard the Park’s concerns, it still approved the combining of WMUs 313 and 316, and a harvest of six wolves per year.
Whether this is right or wrong is a topic of much debate, but if you’re interested in formulating your own opinion, there’s plenty of data out there. Head here for all the stats.