Yellowstone Wolves In Its Crosshairs
PPhoto by Jacob W. Frank/NPS; graphic element added by Gus O’Keefe
By Todd Wilkinson
For the first autumn in 27 years, the most famous population of wild wolves in the world has essentially no protection when members of its packs wander across the invisible boundary of Yellowstone National Park into Montana.
Montana’s controversial new wolf management laws, designed to reduce wolf numbers in the state to the lowest level they can be without triggering a return to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, come into sharpest focus perhaps on the northern edge of America’s first national park.
Any wolf that lives most of its life in Yellowstone and crosses the boundary into Montana can be killed beginning this month. Especially vulnerable are members of the renowned Junction Butte Pack that has enthralled millions of wolf watchers in the vicinity of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley over the years. Ironic, scientists say, is that the very tolerance wolves have developed toward people within the sanctuary of Yellowstone could lead to their easy demise for hunters in Montana waiting to draw them within view of a rifle scope.
Normally, the total allowable annual wolf quota for hunters and trappers to kill wolves in a pair of hunting districts bordering Yellowstone—district 313 near Gardiner and 316 near Cooke City—is one in each district. But under new regulations now in place, the quotas no longer exist and an unlimited number of wolves can be shot or trapped using baits on private property and spotlights to stalk them at night. Similarly, quotas have been dropped in hunting districts bordering Glacier National Park in the northern part of the state near the US-Canada border.
The new law allows for an individual hunter or trapper to kill up to 10 wolves apiece. Although it’s not likely to happen, just half a dozen hunters and trappers, could, if enough Yellowstone wolves trotted into Montana, bag their legal limit and reduce the park wolf population by 50 percent. Even if they netted only a percentage of that, it could cause mayhem in the social pack structures of Yellowstone lobos, scientists say.
“Montana is hellbent on erasing one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in the history of this country and its liberalized wolf-killing policies allowed to exist literally on the doorstep of Yellowstone are a disgrace,” says former Yellowstone Superintendent Michael V. Finley. “What this does is put wolves, which people come from around the world to see in Yellowstone—and I should note spend money in Montana—in peril. It’s not only wanton waste and morally and ethically reprehensible but it could also destroy decades of valuable scientific research into these animals.”
Outrage to the state wolf-killing policies put in place this year focusses not just on Montana, but has also been directed to Idaho and the Midwestern state of Wisconsin. It has hastened calls from environmentalists, prominent independent scientists, nature-tourism operators and citizens to have US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland use her power to immediately “relist” wolves, i.e. put them back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Haaland, as President Joe Biden’s top public land manager who oversees national parks, has so far not intervened. Moreover, the Biden Administration has refused to halt plans put in place by the Trump Administration to remove all federal protections for wolves across the Lower 48.
However, the former national director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which orchestrated wolf recovery in the Lower 48, says that urgent action is needed. Dan Ashe told Mountain Journal what he also echoed in an opinion piece he wrote for The Washington Post, that laws in Montana and Idaho represent a grave threat to the biological integrity of the species’ recovery. “This is not wildlife management,” he said. “it’s ecocide.”
Wolves by the middle of the 19th century were annihilated from most of the Lower 48. Even in Yellowstone the government aided trappers in achieving total extermination of wolves in the park during the 1920s. Some 31 wolves, captured in Canada, were reintroduced to Yellowstone and 35 to wilderness areas in Idaho during the winters of 1995 and 1996. Since then their numbers have grown and they have expanded their range, with wolves recolonizing Washington State, Oregon and California following an absence of more than 50 years. It’s been called one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in history and a model for other countries.
A growing chorus of wildlife advocates say that triumph is on the cusp of being reversed.
The new wolf-control codes in both Montana and neighboring Idaho allow for use of neck-squeezing snares to catch wolves and strangle them to death. Snare use is forbidden within federal grizzly bear recovery zones in both states because grizzlies still are federally protected. However, beyond those relatively small zones, snaring is allowed on both public and private land. In addition to snaring, which is outlawed in many states because of lethal threats posed to non-target species, including pet dogs and imperiled animals such as wolverines and Canada lynx, Montana and Idaho also allow for controversial wolf baiting, that is banned in many states because it is considered a violation of fair-chase hunting practices. And wolf hunters can use bright spotlights, using a technique known as “shining,” to hunt lobos at night on private land with use of high-tech insert-red goggles and scopes. Again, shining is banned in most states.
The general wolf hunting season in Montana commences Sept. 15 and the trapping season begins on Nov. 29 but will be delayed in grizzly bear recovery zones until December when bears den. Both season run through March 15, 2022.
The main instigators of anti-wolf bills in Montana were Paul Fielder, a member of the Montana House of Representatives and Sen. Bob Brown. Both are from Thompson Falls located in the far northwestern corner of the state. Fielder is husband to former state senator Jennifer Fielder who won a seat on the Montana Public Service Commission in the November 2020 election. Mrs. Fielder is best known for her radical views, including promoting the idea that federal lands ought to be transferred into state management.
The Fielders are close friends of Thompson Falls realtor Glenn Schenaver, affiliated with the Foundation for Wildlife Management formed with a singular mission of lethally controlling wolves. Foundation for Wildlife Management created an expensive reimbursement fund in Idaho that covers the costs of hunters and trappers who kill wolves. Critics have called it a de-facto bounty program. Sen. Brown drafted a bill that authorizes a reimbursement program in Montana nearly identical to Idaho’s; it passed and Gianforte signed it into law.
Patrick Flowers, a state senator, served for several years as the regional director for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks in the southwest corner of the state that surrounds Bozeman and abuts Yellowstone. He says the legislature has created problems—and lit a controversy—that didn’t need to happen.
“There was an argument made about impacts on big game populations in northwest Montana. If you accept the premise, and I don’t, then you would think the logical strategy would be to address it in northwest Montana,” he said. “But the bills they passed didn’t do that. It is overreaching and seeks to reduce wolf populations across the state. When it comes to a place like Yellowstone, I don’t see a need for what is being prescribed.” (MoJo readers can peruse the state’s autumn 2021 big game hunting forecast by clicking here).
Flowers says it seems the clear intent was to carry the agenda of Foundation for Wildlife Management and other anti-wolf groups. He witnessed firsthand when Montana and Fish Wildlife and Parks took a beating in the national media after it enlisted hunters in the 1990s to be participants in gunning down of Yellowstone bison coming into the state. Eventually, management over bison got stripped away from Fish Wildlife and Parks and was handed over to the Department of Agriculture, which continues to falsely claim that bison represent the eminent risk of passing the disease brucellosis to domestic cattle herds in the state. In fact a study by the National Academies of Sciences resoundingly refutes it, saying that elk represent the primary threat in wildlife to livestock disease transmission.
At a contentious Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in July, an incredulous Patrick Byorth demanded to see evidence from his colleagues to justify what they were pushing through. They produced little.“It appeared that they knew what was going to happen before the meeting even started. I asked if they had a pre-meeting without me being present and one of them said they had been getting together two or three at a time to decide what they were going to do,” Byorth told Mountain Journal.
Byorth is an attorney in Bozeman, former fisheries biologist with Fish Wildlife and Parks and a senior staffer with Trout Unlimited in Montana. He is the only sitting commissioner not appointed by Gianforte and by dint of a fluke had his appointed term carry over from the previous administration of Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. He and fellow commissioner K.C. Walsh, a Gianforte appointee and best known for being the owner of Simms Fishing Products, an international manufacturer of high quality fishing waders, both voted against adopting the controversial new approaches to wolf management, citing concerns about their ethics, but lost in a 3-2 vote.
“We’ve got people in northwest Montana who hate wolves and now the legislature and the governor have pandered to them. They say, ‘Now that we’re killing the heck out of wolves there’s going to miraculously be so many elk you can shoot them right off the road.’ Well, elk biology is more complicated than that. One of the big drivers is declining habitat. I would note that if you look at the numbers, the elk population is actually fairly stable in Region 1,” Byorth said.