Fifteen gray wolves from five different packs were killed in Montana for preying on livestock between May 17 and May 21, making it one of the deadliest five-day stretches for Canis lupus this year.
So far this year, 64 wolves have died, with the majority — 44 — being shot by federal agents for preying on livestock. The others were killed by cars or property owners or died from unknown causes.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials also have authorized the shooting of at least 18 more wolves from five packs. If successful, that will bring the total to 82 dead wolves in Montana so far this year.
“It seems a little heavy handed, when at last count there were only 524 wolves in Montana and a lot more cows,” said Jesse Timberlake with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
Liz Bradley, a Missoula-based wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, readily acknowledges that the state is acting more aggressively this year on control actions because more wolves are on the landscape than have been here in the past decade. It’s part of an ongoing upward trend; in 1999, when about 80 wolves were spotted on Montana’s landscape, 19 were killed for wildlife depredation. Ten years later, with more than 500 wolves in the Treasure State, that number rose to 145 wolves.
“More wolves in more places equals more conflicts,” Bradley said. “We’ve seen that trend over the years. We’re still trying to use preventive methods to reduce conflicts, but there are places that hasn’t worked.”
In those places, agents with the U.S. Wildlife Services typically shoot problem wolves, from the ground and from helicopters. The agency’s Montana director, John Steuber, said the recent increase in activity is causing his agents to sometimes put in 12-hour days, but they’re committed to reducing losses to livestock producers. In years past that effort has focused more on animals like coyotes and mountain lions, but wolves are now taking more of their time.
“We have 20 people scattered throughout the state, and it’s becoming more and more work, which is stretching them thinner and thinner. But these are probably the most committed government workers you’ll find,” Steuber said. “Our wolf work has been increasing for three, four, five years now so we’re getting kind of used to it, but it’s a little overwhelming right now.”
Bradley and Ed Bangs, who managed wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until those duties were turned over to the state, note that high wolf mortality is typical in the spring. That’s because wolves are close to calving livestock in the lower elevations and big game hasn’t moved into the high country yet, drawing wolves out of the valleys.
Bangs added that in previous years, federal agents have taken out large packs for livestock depredation, pointing to the removal of 22 out of 23 wolves in the Livermore pack during a three-day period last September as an example.
But this month, the removal actions are all over the map. Four wolves were killed May 21 west of Missoula and another to the north, from a different pack, on May 20. In the east fork of the Bitterroot, a wolf was shot on May 15 and another on May 17. Two wolves were killed north of Wisdom May 18 and another was shot the next day. Two wolves were killed north of Helmville May 18 and another on May 23. Two wolves were killed May 18 north of Wolf Creek.
“We knew from early on that this would happen, which is why Wildlife Services has been a partner from early on,” Bangs said. “You can see from the wolf reports that we’ve been heading toward this for years — more depredations so there’s more control. When we started, we would move problem animals around, capturing them and putting them somewhere else, but there’s enough now that we just kill them.
“That’s one of the reasons that hunting can be so important; you can have hunters pay to remove some wolves rather than use taxpayers money to go after them. It’s a good management tool to reduce conflicts and costs.”
Last year, 145 wolves were killed for livestock-related reasons and hunters in Montana killed another 68 wolves. With illegal kills, accidental deaths and natural causes, a total of 255 died. However, the wolf population still increased by 4 percent.
This year, FWP is proposing a hunting quota ranging from 153 to 216 wolves. Tom Palmer, a FWP spokesman, said those proposals take into account the 255 wolves that died for reasons other than the hunt last year.
The state agency calculates that without hunting, the wolf population in Montana would increase to 667 wolves this year. The higher harvest rate could reduce the population to around 400 wolves; the lower rate would maintain about 500 wolves.
But regardless what harvest rate is chosen, most of those involved in wolf management expect to see additional wolves shot in the upcoming months by Wildlife Services, since depredations typically pick up twice a year — now, when newborn calves are easy prey, and in the fall, when wolf pups are weaned and they’re looking for an easy meal.
“This has been going on for years, and every year it notches up a little bit,” Bangs said. “Eventually, the wolf population will stop growing because the level of damage is so high and we’re killing so many wolves that the population stops growing.
“There are some year-to-year fluctuations, but the long-term trend certainly shows more problems, so we have more control efforts. The bottom line is with more and more wolves, we’ll have more and more problems.”
Reporter Eve Byron:
447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org