Wolf case highlights need for collaboration


Sometimes no news is good news, so I’ll count last week's relatively uneventful oral arguments as a boon for continued wolf recovery efforts in the northern Rockies. But the mood both inside and outside the U.S. district courthouse in Missoula shows there’s still much work to be done to ensure sustainable wolf management in the region.

Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations brought suit against the federal government for not providing adequate protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act. The legal question at stake is whether wolves can be protected in one state (Wyoming) while remaining under aggressive state management in neighboring states (Idaho and Montana).

Wyoming’s wolf plan would have allowed the animals to be shot on sight in 90 percent of the state, which was previously deemed to be inadequate protection for the species and resulted in their re-listing in Wyoming. Meanwhile, Idaho and Montana adopted more reasonable wolf plans, only to allow hunting in 2009 to cull the growing population. Unfortunately, the wolves don’t know when they’ve crossed state lines, leaving them in the precarious position of being safe on one side and targeted by hunters on the other.

The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect distinct population segments as contiguous areas on the landscape, not as parceled subdivisions based on political boundaries. Biologists agree that wolves must have adequate numbers and dispersal pathways for genetic exchange across the entire range in order for a healthy population to survive over the long run.

Though wolves have made a strong recovery thus far, their future is still uncertain. In 2009, 185 wolves were killed in Idaho and 73 in Montana during the first state-authorized hunt. If the hunts are allowed to continue, both states are likely to raise their quotas to take even more wolves off the landscape. Montana is considering doubling, or even tripling, its quota, and both state management plans allow for as few as 150 wolves per state.

Three hundred individuals are simply not enough to sustain the population. These minimum targets are based on outdated science that needs to be updated immediately in order for wolves to be permanently removed from federal protection. Ultimately, wolves need to be managed responsibly by the states as a valuable natural resource—not as unwanted predators.

The court case and the future of the hunt won’t be decided until later this year, but there is much that can be done in the meantime to address the legitimate concerns of hunters and ranchers without needlessly slaughtering wolves.

It’s true, wolves are thinning elk herds in select areas—some on prized hunting grounds. Wolves also move the elk around more which can make hunting trickier. But overall population estimates for the region indicate there are more than 350,000 elk and more than a million deer, putting them above management levels in most herds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. This is compared to just 1,750 wolves across the same area.

Wolves are top predators and can influence population dynamics, but they are just one of many factors. Elk numbers vary naturally from year to year and are also influenced by bad weather, disease, land development and hunting by humans. As a wildlife conservationist and a hunter, I believe we can accommodate a thriving wolf population and maintain sufficient game herds.

Wolves have also been unfairly demonized by many in the ranching industry. Wolf depredations account for only one percent of livestock losses; far more are lost to bad weather, disease or injury, and attacks by grizzlies, coyotes and even domestic dogs.

Still, there are many ways to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock. For 23 years we’ve been working with ranchers to help prevent livestock depredations, and this month marks the beginning of our annual proactive season. With modified animal husbandry practices such as putting up fencing, providing greater human presence and hazing, many producers have been able to dramatically reduce the number of sheep and cattle lost to wolves.

For example, in the Big Wood River Valley in central Idaho we’ve trained field technicians who spend the grazing season with three bands of sheep to ward off wolf attacks. So far, we’ve seen depredations decline over the three years of the project. In fact, last year the only losses occurred during one night when the technicians were not with the flock, suggesting the wolves know to keep their distance when humans are nearby.

Implementing smarter ranching practices is an important first step towards a more peaceful co-existence with wolves. The next step is to work together on a regional management plan that can ensure a healthy wolf population, protect livestock from depredations and maintain sufficient game for hunting. That is not an insurmountable task. I feel confident that by bringing level heads to the table, with the best available science in hand, we can come up with a workable solution that we can all live with.

Mike Leahy is director of conservation programs in the Rocky Mountain region for Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Montana.

jerry black
jerry black
Jun 24, 2010 04:04 PM
Mike........ "this month marks the beginning of our annual proactive season." That's great news Mike! Where exactly in Montana are you implementing your proactive measures? Since we've already lost 80 wolves to Wildlife Services this year and are on track to lose well over the 140 killed by them last year I'm curious why the "annual proactive season" doesn't begin till June??? Also, what do you think about MFWP handing over 100% of control actions to Wildlife Services? That means no oversight...it's between the ranchers and WS. (Maybe had Defenders bothered to show up at the hearings on this and other wolf issues, your imput would have made at least some difference)....oh ya, forgot....more $$ to be made capitalizing on the oil spill.
DOW and Jerry Blacks comments and questions
Marc Cooke
Marc Cooke
Jun 24, 2010 04:53 PM
Mike, Mr. Black raises several good questions. What do you think about the State giving total control of future human caused mortality to wildlife service? Why did DOW not have a representative at the last two Montana Environmental Quality Committee meetings in Helena? Were are you (DOW) helping cooperating ranchers be proactive towards wolves and other predators? I look for to your reply
Information on proactive projects
John Motsinger
John Motsinger
Jun 25, 2010 01:07 PM
You can read about our proactive carnivore conservation work on our website at http://www.defenders.org/[…]/index.php.

This includes a map of our projects in the Northern Rockies and a manual published in 2008 titled, "Livestock and Wolves: A Guide to Nonlethal Tools and Methods to Reduce Conflicts"

better link
John Motsinger
John Motsinger
Jun 25, 2010 01:18 PM
DOW , Wrong webpage
Marc Cooke
Marc Cooke
Jun 25, 2010 01:52 PM
John, If you see this I just tried your webpage suggestion and it said

"Page not found were sorry"!. Could you please try that again I would like to see this information? Marc
DOW Proactive Projects
jerry black
jerry black
Jun 25, 2010 02:56 PM
John..Thankyou for the map of the "proactive carnivore projects".
I notice that it covers the period 1999-2007. More up to date information would be helpful.
What are the locations of 2010's proactive projects in Montana and when will they commence?
Also a question concerning the "compensation fund". DOW gave $100,000 to the Montana Dept of Livestock last year to seed the new compensation fund. Were there any requirements that ranchers use proactive measures to qualify for any of this compensation money?
As a member of Defenders of Wildlife, I appreciate your taking the time to answer questions posed by your members.
You've slanted the truth some
Mark Wright
Mark Wright
Jun 25, 2010 08:42 PM
Mike, don't know how you so supposedly expertly pick off the 1% livestock loss number on wolves.

Do know that if wolves get into a herd or flock, they'll generally keep coming back.

When they get into a set of cows, say 50 pairs ( cows with calves ) they'll generally tear up right at 20 head the first trip, then another 30 head the 2nd.

There's plenty of individual case instances of 20% to 70% losses in the extreme cases of this ( kinda like the wolf lotto...the winners do not get visited...that simple too ).

Big problem is they generally fatally maim more than they kill.

Seems to me like if the govt Really gets to the plate as far as paying for losses, then this is less of an issue.

Also, govt paid for field techs to guard the herds/flocks makes sense too.

Just seems like since it IS govt livestock ( like wolves ARE )that is causing monetary damages to citizen owned property, then the govt IS responsible to thus repay and make that private sector whole on a Timely and Non argumentitive basis. ( Count em and write the check on the spot ).