Even though a federal agency rejected efforts Thursday that would have allowed wolf hunting this year in Montana, state officials still plan to seek approval to remove 12 wolves from the West Fork of the Bitterroot beginning in December.
In a letter faxed to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier Thursday, a deputy director with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they believe wolves are “secure” in Montana and the federal agency supports a hunting season as a management tool. However, USFWS Deputy Director Daniel Ashe wrote that they can’t approve the state’s request for a permit that would have allowed an abridged fall 2010 wolf hunt because that action probably would lead to additional, successful legal challenges.
“No one would be well served by continuing the cycle of litigation surrounding wolf management in the Northern Rockies,” Ashe wrote.
Montana had asked for an “enhancement of survival permit,” — known as a 10(a)(1)(A) permit — to be issued by Nov. 30, which under the Endangered Species Act would have allowed wolves to be hunted this fall to enhance the survival of the species. The state also had requested the USFWS reclassify wolves in the northern half of the state as threatened instead of endangered, which could have allowed for a statewide conservation hunt in 2011, but Ashe rejected that too.
Maurier said he was disappointed but not surprised by the federal agency’s decision, and they have to “keep swinging the bat until they tell us it’s over.”
“The bottom line is they find it very hard to allow any hunting of animals listed as endangered species,” Maurier said. “We kind of knew that, but we had to make them say it in writing.”
Still, his agency will move forward with a request to allow hunters to kill about half of the known wolves in Hunting District 250 in southwestern Montana because of their culling of the elk herd in the area. They hope to remove 12 wolves this year, and hold additional hunts for the next four years to keep the wolf population at 12 in the area.
At an FWP Commission meeting Thursday, a state wildlife biologist said the wolves have caused a “precipitous and unprecedented drop” in elk cow/calf ratios in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.
Under what’s known as the 2008 “10(j) rule” in the Endangered Species Act, the state can seek permission from the federal government to kill wolves if it can be proven that they’re one of the major reasons for unacceptable population declines in ungulates, noted Ken McDonald, FWP wildlife bureau chief. The rule only can be used on what’s known as the “experimental” wolf population, which generally is in the southern portion of the state.
McDonald said that in the past three years, the hunting district averaged 15 elk calves per 100 cows, which is about 40 percent below the management standard of 25 calves per 100 cows. Overall elk numbers have steadily dropped from a high of 1,914 in 2005 to 764 in 2010; management objectives call for anywhere from 1,600 to 2,400 elk in that district.
At least 24 wolves are known to reside in the area in four packs. One pack was removed for livestock depredation, but another moved in.
“The basis for the proposal is the precipitous and unprecedented drop in calf/cow ratios … independent of (hunter) harvest levels,” said Mike Thompson, an FWP wildlife biologist. “What we’re seeing today is a biological response that we haven’t seen before and can’t explain with other factors.”
Under the proposal, FWP would solicit applications from hunters and draw 100 names of people who would act as designated agents of the state. They would be allowed to hunt wolves between Dec. 15 and Feb. 28 this year, and must report any kills within 12 hours. No more than 10 percent of the hunters could be nonresidents.
If approved, the 10(j) wolf hunts in 2011 through 2015 probably would coincide with the general big-game hunting season. The number of wolves to be removed each year would be set by the FWP Commission.
“This is a control action to minimize unacceptable impacts to ungulates,” McDonald said. “… as the number of wolves goes up the calf recruitment goes down.”
Idaho is expected to submit a similar 10(j) request to kill at least 40 to 50 wolves in the Lolo elk management zone in northern Idaho to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday, McDonald said. He noted that the 2008 rule is being challenged in federal court, so even if the request is approved by the federal agency, the wolf removal action still could be halted by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy — the same judge who reinstated wolves on Aug. 5 as an animal needing protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Briefs on the rule protest also are due on Friday.
“Then we wait and see what the final judgment will be,” McDonald said. “If there are challenges or injunctions, it may be triggered by Idaho’s proposal.”
Montana’s proposal will be presented to the public for a 30-day comment period; it also must go through peer review. The matter will come before the FWP Commission at its Nov. 18 meeting.
McDonald expects a lot of people to weigh in on the 10(j) request, noting that Idaho received about 2,000 comments.
“That’s more than we got on our wolf hunting proposals by about double,” McDonald said.
After looking at elk numbers going back to 1980 in the district, Commissioner Ron Moody noted that they were in the 580 to 990 range for most of that decade, and he said people were asking whether the elk management objectives were being artificially inflated so the state could move forward with the hunt.
McDonald assured him that wasn’t the case, and that the low numbers were due to overhunting in the 1980s in that district. But he acknowledged that an argument could be made, “depending on which side of the fence you’re on.”
“What we know is the habitat can sustain that many elk and provide for fairly good hunter opportunities,” McDonald said. “So this would be a workable objective for a sustainable number of elk for that hunting district.”
Wolves in Montana and Idaho were removed from the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act most recently in 2009, but not in Wyoming since the state doesn’t have a federally approved wolf management plan.
In recent weeks, congressmen in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah all filed various bills seeking to remove gray wolves from the list of threatened or endangered species in some or all of those states. Montana and Idaho, along with various federal agencies and sporting groups, filed an appeal last week to Molloy’s Aug. 5 ruling in which he said wolves can’t be delisted in two states, but remain protected in an adjacent one.
The Northern Rockies are home to at least 1,700 gray wolves, which is more than five times the previously set federal benchmark of 300 wolves for them to be considered a recovered species and removed from federal protection. Montana has a minimum of 524 wolves in the state in 101 packs.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com