Montana’s top wildlife official acknowledged Friday that the state has too many wolves on the landscape, so he’s implementing a new strategy that will allow problem wolves to be killed more quickly by federal agents.

In a hearing before the Environmental Quality Council, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier said federal Wildlife Services agents no longer need FWP authorization to kill wolves at or near confirmed livestock depredation sites.

The agents also will be able to immediately kill any wolves that are trapped when they return to those sites to feed on dead livestock.

“For the amount of conflict we have in all sectors today, we probably have too many wolves on the landscape,” Maurier told the council. “We had tolerable conflict on the landscape; now it’s intolerable. Now we have to go back to the point where it’s tolerable at all levels but we still have a viable population.”

He noted that Montana’s wolf management plan allows them to make revisions when needed, as long as the state meets certain population levels.

Maurier added that he expects the wolf hunting quota to be increased next season from the initial statewide quota of 75 as another way to lower the wolf population. Initial estimates put Montana’s wolf population at 500 animals this year, which is about the same as last year.

John Steuber, Montana state director for Wildlife Services, said the new strategy will greatly aid his agents, who often have difficulty contacting FWP from the field to receive approval for killing wolves that had preyed on livestock.

“I appreciate the new protocol and think it’s a very positive step forward in dealing with livestock predation quickly and on site,” Steuber said. “I’m looking forward to discussing with Fish, Wildlife and Parks additional ways to get (wolf numbers) lower. Our wolf work has increased dramatically.”

Wisdom-area rancher Carol Giem also applauded the new policy, but said it doesn’t go far enough since Wildlife Services doesn’t have enough employees to respond as quickly as needed at times. She also wanted more flexibility in shoot-on-sight orders; currently they expire after 45 days. Giem explained how they had eight cattle killed by wolves so they removed the cattle from the pasture, but when they returned them later — after the order had expired — the wolves returned and killed more of their livestock.

“The number of wolves has exploded and the number of Wildlife Services people on the ground remains the same,” Giem said. “They are our best line of defense and the only people on the ground to deal with our depredation.”

Wolves can be shot on sight if they’re caught in the act of killing livestock.

Gray wolves were put on the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, and were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain region in 1994. They remain on that list in Wyoming, but were removed by the federal government last year in Montana and Idaho, which is home to about 1,000 wolves. Montana and Idaho instituted a hunting season last year.

The status of wolves is part of an ongoing legal battle, with opponents to the delisting saying their population can’t be recovered in two states and not in the third. However, state and federal officials don’t agree.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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