Should we hunt wolves in Montana? If so, how many should be taken? Will the legal maneuvering by those opposed to wolf hunts ever cease?
Those are some of the nagging questions in what has become one of Montana’s most wearisome, hysteria-driven debates in decades.
Last week, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks formally announced proposed changes to the current wolf hunting regulations. The changes call for a significant increase in the number of wolves that can be shot by hunters and rework the wolf hunting districts to better focus on where wolves and potential problems exist.
It was just a year ago that gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list, and Montana and Idaho last fall held their first official wolf hunts in decades. In Montana, the quota of 75 wolves was quickly reached.
Since then, some critics of state and federal wolf managers have claimed that wolves are destroying the populations of elk and deer in many areas of Montana. Others say they are taking a heavy toll on livestock. On the other side, critics have said any sort of hunt would put the wolf population on shaky biological ground and have promised to head to court to stop any further hunts.
As is the case with most debates, the truth lies not at the extremes but in the middle.
“We’ve learned a lot over the past year and our proposals for 2010 reflect a rigorous, science-based effort to manage the total number of wolves that can be taken by hunters while maintaining a balance among all wildlife, their habitat, and the people who live there,” said Ken McDonald, FWP’s top wildlife manager in explaining the new wolf proposals.
FWP has proposed a 2010 hunting quota of between 186 and 216 wolves. The department has created 14 subunits within three large hunting districts with hope of better targeting wolves in areas where livestock depredation is taking place. Game managers estimate that Montana is home to at least 524 wolves in about 100 packs. That’s well above the recovery targets established for the state as part of the federal wolf reintroduction program.
FWP is taking public comment on the wolf hunting proposals. The comment period runs through June 14. A decision on the regulations is scheduled for July 8.
Of course, the next big decisions in the wolf debate may not rest with FWP. Shortly after the wolf was delisted last May, a handful of conservation and environmental groups sued to overturn the decision. Federal court arguments in the case are set for June 15 in Missoula. When a decision might be made is uncertain. Also lurking are any rulings on injunctions that could stop the wolf hunt.
The legal limbo is regrettable. As the Independent Record’s editorial board has said before and will likely say again, wolf management belongs in the hands of professional wildlife managers, not lawyers or judges and certainly not with the hysterical extremists that seem to most loudly frame the wolf debate.