Montana’s wolf hunters hung up their bows last Saturday as archery season closed and rifle season began. Five years after the federal government dropped Montana’s wolves from the Endangered Species List and the state took over management, officials are still trying to trim the state's growing wolf population. This year, each hunter can bag five wolves, up from last year’s maximum of three. In addition, out-of-state hunters can get a wolf license for $50, down from the $350 fee at this time last year. Plus, hunters will have an additional month to stake out these clever, adaptable predators. Montana’s changes come amidst a contentious national conversation about whether gray wolves everywhere should come off the Endangered Species List.
Public comments on the proposed federal delisting were supposed to wrap up last week, but because of the overwhelming response, the comment period has been extended to late October. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says that the proposal to delist is scientifically sound, and that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) does not require full restoration across a species' previous range. With populations already returned to state management in the Northern Rockies (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) and the Western Great Lakes (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan), the agency says it has fulfilled recovery requirements. The proposal would also allow the agency to focus on a southwestern sub-species, the Mexican wolf, which would still be listed as endangered. Gary Frazer, the agency's assistant director for endangered species, told Nature journal, “That was the plan from the beginning: to declare recovery, to delist the species, and to move on to other species that need our attention.”
However, opponents argue that, while wolf populations have indeed improved since the mid-20th century, their range and numbers are still not big enough to maintain healthy genetic diversity. And states managing wolves plan to reduce current populations even further through hunting, trapping and agency culls (although they can't let numbers drop below a federally required minimum). Conservationists say the delisting proposal sets a dangerous precedent for the ESA by calling it good on wolves when they may still need federal protection. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is essentially saying that this is the best that wolves can do, and it’s not even close,” John Vucetich, a forest scientist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, told Nature.
In Montana, the minimum federally required number is 150 individuals, including 15 breeding pairs. Since the state took over wolf management, it has increased the access for wolf hunters through a longer season and larger bag counts. And each year, the numbers of hunters and the reported kills have also increased. Still, wolf populations are growing faster than state managers would like. The most recent count in Montana, conducted at the end of 2012, estimated at least 625.
As wolf populations in the state have increased in recent decades, so have wolf conflicts with humans and livestock. For the 2011 hunting season, Montana FWP set a state-wide maximum of 220 wolf kills, a number that managers thought would strike a balance between maintaining a healthy population and reducing those conflicts. But by the end of the season, which had already been extended by a month and a half, hunters and trappers had taken 166 wolves – only 75 percent of the total managers had hoped to remove. For the 2012-2013 season, hunters and trappers reported 225 wolf kills.
With wolf counts continuing to grow in the Northern Rockies, the FWS says its work with the gray wolf is done. “Of course, the gray wolf is not everywhere it once was, nor can it be; think Denver, or Minneapolis, or Salt Lake City, or even the now grain- and livestock-dominated American Plains,” FWS Director Dan Ashe wrote in a blog post in June. Ashe sees current wolf populations as a mark of success and reason enough to delist in all states: “We can work conservation miracles, because we have. The gray wolf is proof.”