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Montana’s once proud wildlife legacy in tatters over wolves

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A Yellowstone grizzly and wolf stroll toward an elk carcass in Yellowstone National Park. So far, two wolf pups and a 1.5-year-old yearling, members of Yellowstone’s beloved Junction Butte Pack, have been claimed as trophies by hunters when they wandered into Montana. PHOTO COURTESY OF NPS 

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

For years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has owned a gold-plated reputation nationally for how it stewards wildlife managed in the public trust. But now, a groundswell of critics say that legacy is being dismantled by extremist ideology. 

Moreover, a prominent group of scientists in charge of helping to build the department’s reputation say Montana’s policies aimed at annihilated gray wolves has little scientific basis.

Never before in the history of Montana has a sitting governor and Legislature come under a more withering rebuke from such a wide assemblage of wildlife experts with distinguished careers. 

But that’s what is happening now to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and members of the state Legislature who passed new laws targeting gray wolves, authorizing killing techniques that most wildlife professionals and hunters say are a violation of long-established fair-chase hunting practices. 

One group of scientists and managers with 1,500 years of combined experience managing wildlife in Montana is led by Dr. Christopher Servheen, the former national director of grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Another is led by Dr. Gary Wolfe, representing seven former Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners.

All of the above say Gianforte’s policies are bringing disgrace upon Montana’s hard-earned national status as a beacon of light for wildlife management. Perhaps the highest-profile example of what they’re talking about is happening in Montana just beyond the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.

Already, two wolf pups and a 1.5-year-old, members of the beloved Yellowstone Junction Butte pack, were killed when they wandered into Montana across the invisible park boundary. 

The missives led by Servheen and Wolfe, however, are among a rapidly expanding public backlash involving scientists and more than 200 indigenous tribes along with a dozen influential conservation organizations who are condemning not only policies in Northern Rockies states, including Idaho and Wyoming, but also Wisconsin. 

The latter have written letters and filed formal petitions calling upon Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to exercise her emergency powers and place wolves back under protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Not long ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is undertaking a review to determine whether relisting is warranted. At present, laws would allow for more than 80 percent of existing wolves in Idaho to be killed and in Montana the wolf population could be knocked down to one-tenth of its current size, based on claims unsupported by science, that wolves are decimating big game herds and causing huge financial losses to ranchers. 

The signees to Servheen’s statement say: “Wolf haters in the Legislature [have] made up fact-free stories about the impacts of wolves on elk populations in order to destroy Montana’s recovered wolf population by legislating use of baited leg-hold traps and neck snares for wolves on public lands, unethical night hunting over bait with night vision scopes and spotlights, extending the wolf trapping season, increased bag limits per hunter, paying bounties to kill wolves, and allowing baited neck snares and leg-hold traps on public land in grizzly and black bear habitat during the time bears are out of the den.”

Drawing upon their combined experience, those joining Servheen add: “As wildlife professionals we oppose the current politization of wildlife management and wildlife policy in Montana. We believe that wildlife management should be based on science and facts in order to assure the careful management of all of Montana’s fish and wildlife. Such decisions should be made in accordance with the interests of the majority of Montana residents who desire healthy fish and wildlife and a healthy environment. The future of Montana’s fish and wildlife should not be sacrificed to partisan political agendas that cater to special interests, favor the wealthy few, and are based an irrational hatred of predators.”

The group is joined by former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Director Dan Ashe, who said the treatment of wolves by Rocky Mountain states and Wisconsin is unprecedented in the modern recovery of imperiled species. Ashe, too, has called for emergency relisting.

Servheen has said he once trusted the ability of states to responsibly manage both wolves and grizzlies. He defended Montana when it claimed it would look out for the best interest of those recovered species, considered two of the greatest wildlife conservation successes ever, but he says actions taken by governors and legislators in Montana and Idaho have changed his mind.

Separately, seven former state wildlife commissioners in Montana also raised concerns. 

“Adoption of these regressive regulations reflects poorly upon the Commission, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the State of Montana,” they write. “Not only are the new regulations not justified biologically, but they also run counter to generally accepted principles of fair chase and hunting ethics, undermine broader public support for the delisting of endangered species such as grizzly bears and wolves, and add to the negative perceptions many members of the non-hunting public hold for recreational trapping and hunting.” 

For his part, Wolfe, who also signed onto both letters, is not only well known as a wildlife commissioner, biological consultant and conservationist, but for several years he was president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, arguably during its most important period when it gained national credibility.

“I never thought I’d see this day where Montana would return to the Dark Ages of dealing with wolves, but we are there,” he said. “Montana should feel nothing but shame.” 

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399. Wilkinson’s cover story on renowned actress Glenn Close appears in the summer 2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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