Wolves in the Northern Rockies were taken off the Endangered Species list in 2008 and 2009 but these decisions were challenged, resulting in relisting. “Every time that they’ve been delisted, the states have liberalized killing of wolves,” Lute observed. Now, a decade after the final delisting in 2011 in a rider to a budget bill, Idaho and Montana are ramping up their efforts to drastically kill off the species. Lute and others who monitor the situation are concerned that the draconian new laws will reverse decades of wolf population recovery.
In April, Montana’s SB 314 set a goal of reducing the 800 to 1,200 wolves in the state to just 15 breeding pairs. The bill authorizes the unlimited take of wolves under one license, use of bait, and hunting on private lands even at night using artificial light. Additional legislation allows for the use of snares, extends the trapping season by a month, and establishes a scheme for reimbursement of costs associated with hunting wolves—essentially legalizing bounty hunting. A bill to put wolves on the predator list, which would allow for hunting without a license, failed to pass, as did another that would have increased the number of farmers on the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the body responsible for regulating hunting in the state, and thus biasing it in favor of agricultural interests.
In May, Idaho passed a bill that allows for year-round hunting of wolves on private property, no bag limits, and the use of private contractors. Extreme methods such as tracking wolves using all-terrain vehicles and dogs as well as the use of snares and bait are now permitted as well. The bill also substantially increases funding for the state’s Wolf Depredation Control Board, established in 2014. The board is expected to utilize contractors in the bid to reduce the state’s approximately 1,500 animals to only 150, the bare minimum allowed under its 2002 wolf management plan. These new laws take management out of the hands of wildlife agencies typically tasked with overseeing wolf hunting practices—it’s now largely legislative rather than regulatory.
“The biologists and wildlife managers now have zero say in how wolves should be hunted and trapped, even though those are the people appointed to make those decisions,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is leading a coalition of environmental and animal welfare groups in opposing the new laws.
Some of the hunting techniques legal in Montana and Idaho are typically restricted to animals such as coyotes, foxes, and bobcats—categorized as predatory wildlife or furbearers. These species are not afforded the same protections as big game animals. Conservationists fear that this may incentivize the targeting of wolves in what are known as predator derbies or killing contests. Participants compete to determine who can kill the most, or the largest, predatory animals. In some cases, animals have been intentionally run over by snowmobiles or ATVs. Contests sponsored by Idaho for Wildlife in 2013 and 2015 targeted wolves in addition to coyotes, though no wolves were ultimately killed.
Even if these more extreme events are averted, the planned decimation of wolf populations will almost certainly set off a torrent of deleterious effects. Wolves are an essential control for herbivore populations, removing weak and sick animals—they likely minimize chronic wasting disease in elk and deer populations, for example. This is contrary to false assertions made by some big game hunting organizations that wolves have negatively impacted the availability of deer and elk to hunters.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks that perceptions of diminishing elk populations may simply be due to anecdotal evidence, with hunters not finding elk in certain locations because they have simply moved rather than been eaten by wolves.
Wolves do influence the movements of elk, a phenomenon vividly illustrated in Yellowstone following reintroduction in 1995. Because wolves kept elk herds on the run, the herbivores were not able to overgraze willow, cottonwood, and aspen saplings along streambanks. This allowed the plants to rebound, attracting beavers, which in turn altered the course of the waterways by building dams and helping to slow erosion. So, too, the reduction of coyotes by wolves and the food provided by the remnants of their prey allowed the return of other small predator species. While some parts of the park have not recovered as well as others, biologist and wolf conservationist David Parsons said the effects were clearly significant for the ecosystem.
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