As a rangeland scientist, former ranch manager, hunter and conservationist who has worked throughout the Northern Rockies to develop human-carnivore coexistence strategies and tools, I have serious concerns about the recent direction of Montana’s policies towards wolves and other large carnivores, which are clearly intended to kill most of the state’s wolves and probably some of its grizzly bears and other non-target species as well.
The recent anti-predator backlash in Montana represents a reactionary swing by the far-right and a return to the failed predator policies of the early 20th Century, a stance left behind more than 50 years ago not only by the wildlife profession but also by the American public. They are the very policies that landed wolves on the federal Endangered Species list to begin with. Indeed, the new policies are expressly designed to reduce the wolf population to the minimum levels, below which federal re-listing would be triggered.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has long been considered one of the leading state wildlife agencies in the Rockies, and I’ve personally been proud to work with some of your wolf and bear specialists. But, these policies make Montana appear incapable of managing its wolves, if not its wildlife in general, and are already inspiring efforts to get wolves back under federal control. As a direct result of the new policies in Montana and Idaho, and similar policies in Wyoming, more than 400 scientists have called on the federal government for emergency re-listing of wolves in the Northern Rockies, and for a new National Bison, Grizzly Bear, and Wolf Restoration Act to coordinate management of these species across state boundaries.
There is no biological justification for Montana’s new policies, neither based on predator-prey dynamics nor on wolf-livestock conflicts.
In nature, wolves regulate themselves largely through territoriality, with most wolf deaths caused by other wolves. Montana’s wolves have never been allowed to become an ecologically effective population. Instead they’ve been artificially held to a relatively stable to slightly declining population since 2011, with over 2,000 wolves killed by hunting and trapping. Meanwhile, Montana’s elk population has grown since the reintroduction of wolves to Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995-96 (and the same is true in Idaho and Wyoming). Correspondingly, Montana’s hunting license sales—a primary source of revenue—have increased.
Likewise, there is no justification for the current policies based on wolf-livestock conflicts.
Wolves do occasionally kill livestock, albeit a small proportion, and these conflicts should be dealt with fairly. Generally, confirmed depredations are <0.01% of all cattle in wolf-occupied counties of western Montana and the Northern Rocky Mountains in general. In 2020, out of millions of livestock in Montana, only 155 cattle, 92 sheep, 26 goats, and 8 llamas or swine were taken.
The majority of wolves are not involved in depredations, and most incidents are probably opportunistic rather than chronic. Depredations generally peak during the summer when livestock are dispersed out on the range unmonitored. On National Forest allotments, such losses can reasonably be considered a cost of running livestock on public lands.
The effectiveness of lethal control of wolves involved in livestock predation is debatable, as few studies have met the high standards of rigorous science. Its effectiveness most likely depends on the degree to which it is targeted to the specific individuals involved in conflict.. In some cases, lethal control may displace conflicts to nearby areas..
What is clear is that public wolf hunting does not target those relatively few individuals involved in conflicts, and thus does not reduce conflicts. And it is becoming increasingly clear that wolf hunting does not increase human acceptance of wolves or wildness. In fact, the current situation in Montana is evidence of the opposite: a decade of wolf-killing has led only to the desire for more wolf-killing.
In the long run, Montana’s new policies will probably erode public support for hunting and especially trapping. Only about 19% of Montanans hunt, and even fewer hunt or trap wolves. I hunt deer and elk, but as a scientist, I see no biological or ethical purpose in hunting or trapping wolves other than those few involved in conflicts.
I am particularly concerned that the new regulations increase the probability of trapping non-target species, including bears, cats, and smaller carnivores—especially those on the Endangered Species list, such as grizzly bears and lynx, and those that may become listed such as wolverine. That’s not to ignore domestic dogs. All of these species are vulnerable to trapping and especially snaring, which is why snaring is not allowed in research captures of wolves. Additionally, expanding the wolf trapping season to times before bears enter their dens and after they leave them increases the likelihood that both grizzly and black bears will be trapped.
Both a science and an art, coexistence with large carnivores is always evolving. The good news is we have a lot of collective knowledge that we can tap into. This knowledge builds over time, and human fear can decline and tolerance can increase as a result.
Policies such as those being forced on Montana by reactionary legislators are out of step with public opinion and only instill more fear and less tolerance. I recommend that FWP do no more than the minimum legally required to comply with these reactionary, anti-wildlife and anti-science laws, and that the agency works with the state legislators to bring ethics, biology, and reason back to wildlife management in Montana.
Matt Barnes is a rangeland and wildlife conservation scientist with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, a hunter, and former ranch manager.