A gray wolf (Getty Images).
Montana regulators have closed a region in the southwestern part of the state to wolf hunting and trapping after the total number of wolves killed in the area, which borders Yellowstone National Park, reached a management threshold this week.
The department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Thursday that hunters and trappers have killed 82 wolves in Region 3 this season — a number that will “likely result in small population decline at the region scale,” FWP Chief of Staff Quentin Kujala told the Fish and Wildlife Commission last month.
The 82-kill threshold was set as part of a series of controversial wolf hunting regulations the commission adopted in August. These regulations, spurred by legislation passed in the 2021 session intended to reduce wolf populations, loosened restrictions on hunting and trapping methods and removed kill quotas in management units bordering Yellowstone National Park. Commissioners and staff identified identified kill thresholds at both the state and regional level that would trigger a seasonal review: 450 for Montana as a whole, and a varying number for each region, depending on the estimated wolf population.
In January, the commission met and voted to end the season in Region 3 once the threshold of 82 was reached. So far, Region 3 is the only region to reach its threshold. The 82nd wolf kill in the region was recorded Feb. 16 — a hunter shot and killed a female wolf in management unit 390.
A given population of wolves can sustain a rate of decline from 29% to 40%, FWP said in materials shared with the commission. The killing of 82 wolves would represent a 39% decline. Last year, hunters killed 96 wolves in the region.
Legislative Republicans passed a slate of aggressive predator management bills in the 2021 session, citing concerns that creatures like wolves were diminishing populations of prized game like elk and killing livestock. However, the bills elicited concern and anger from wildlife groups and biologists who said the proposals were rooted in an antiquated and unscientific mentality about predators. One bill extended the wolf trapping season, another allowed for night hunting on private land, a third legalized snaring wolves, a fourth allowed for hunters to receive private reimbursements for the costs of killing a wolf – something critics have likened to the kind of bounty that once helped decimate gray wolf populations in the northern Rockies.
In August, after a series of contentious hearings and volumes of public comment, the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted regulations implementing these bills. What really took root in the public’s shared consciousness was the removal of highly restrictive quotas in the management units surrounding Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is banned. These quotas in previous years limited the killing of wolves that generally lived in the park — so-called “Yellowstone wolves” — but wandered into hunting units in Montana to just a few a season.
While the loosened hunting regulations haven’t led to a dramatic uptick in wolves killed statewide compared to last season, the removal of quotas in Units 313 and 316 has allowed for a significant increase in the number of wolves killed adjacent to — and, in many cases, from — the park. Officials with Yellowstone said previously that hunters have killed more Yellowstone wolves this season than in any period since the species was reintroduced 25 years ago, and called on the governor and wildlife regulators to reinstate the quotas.
“Quotas were originally put into 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,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly wrote to Gov. Greg Gianforte on Dec. 16.
Hunters in Montana had killed 19 wolves from packs based in Yellowstone by Feb. 2, according to Yellowstone. The park estimates the current population of wolves in the park to be 90. A spokesperson in the park did not return a request for more recent numbers by press time.
In the two main units bordering the park, 313 and 316, 18 and 3 wolves have been killed this season, respectively, according to FWP.
The decline of of wolf populations in the Yellowstone ecosystem has been met with a series of political and legal efforts to restore protections for the predators. In December, Wolves of the Rockies and Trap Free Montana Public Land sued the state, arguing that the adoption of the new wolf night hunting regulations violated administrative procedure rules. The case is pending in Lewis and Clark County district court, where a judge has already denied a request for preliminary injunction from the plaintiffs to halt the new rules as litigation plays out.
Nationwide, groups have called on the U.S. Department of the Interior to relist gray wolves in the northern Rockies as endangered on an emergency basis, citing predator management policies adopted in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. And a federal judge earlier this month struck down a Trump Administration rule that would have removed wolves from the endangered species list in 45 states across the country.
However, that decision didn’t apply to wolves in Montana and other states in the northern Rockies, where local governments have control over wolf populations due to a long history of legal and regulatory wrangling. One major reason for the state control, though, is a rider Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, attached to a U.S. Senate spending bill in 2011 that effectuated an earlier decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holding that wolves in Montana and Idaho are a recovered species.
Matthew Koehler, a spokesperson for environmental non-profit WildEarth Guardians, said Thursday that the state shouldn’t expect kudos for ending hunting in the region given the volume of killing near Yellowstone.
“If Gov. Gianforte and the state of Montana think they’re gonna be patted on the back for slaughtering over 25% of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park, they have another thing coming,” Koehler said.
Even with the packs in Region 3 safe for now, he said, wolves in other parts of the state, including those bordering Glacier National Park, are subject to the same aggressive hunting and trapping practices until the end of the season.
“The fact of the matter is, the Gianforte administration and the Republicans in the Montana legislature have unleashed a war on wolves in the northern Rockies,” Koehler said.
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