HELENA - Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 7-0 on Friday to allow another six wolves to be killed in the region that borders Yellowstone National Park before hunting is closed there for the remainder of the season.
The commissioners got an avalanche of complaints about continued hunting on the park boundary before taking the vote.
One word kept popping up over and over again during public comment and during the commission discussion- disproportionate. Commissioner Pat Byroth of Bozeman used it when he proposed cutting off hunting immediately.
“In hunting units 313 and 316, we’re having a disproportionate impact that has resulted in a population decline. Whether or not it’ll bounce back, I guess that’s a whole different question,” said Byroth.
But he withdrew his motion when opposed by Commission Vice Chairman Pat Tabor, who wanted instead to allow the hunt to continue until a threshold of 82 wolves for the entire region is met. At the time of the meeting, 76 wolves had been harvested.
So far this season, 20 wolves have been taken in the two management units next to the park. That is many more than in past years. For 2021 it was two. For the season that ended in 2020 and also in 2019, it was three each year. For the season that ended in 2018, it was four. In 2017, it was six. And in 2016, three.
Those numbers stood out starkly for those who waited on the phone to address the virtual meeting of the commissioners. Every single caller who made comments, wanted the hunting to stop immediately.
A caller who identified herself as Julie Argyle said, “These wolves matter. Please reconsider the quotas around the park.”
“When one can use so many methods to kill a species, it is not hunting. It is extermination,” said a woman named Sylvia, who identified herself as a Montana resident.
“The damage you are doing to tourism and wolf research is staggering,” said Mark Cook.
Stephen Capra, the executive director of Footloose Montana, an anti-trapping group said, “We have a Legislature that has an 1880s mentality that is driving this and it’s time for it to stop.”
“Live wolves make money. Dead wolves don’t,” said Kim Bean.
No one testified in favor of continuing the hunt. But Tabor questioned whether wolves killed so far were really from the park. He said, “It could be really wolves from anywhere, including from outside 313 and 316.”
The FWP’s Ken McDonald told Tabor the origin of the park wolves is well documented. But added, “Those quotas around the park were put in again, primarily for, based on social considerations versus more biological recommendations.”
Quentin Kujala from FWP added that the current wolf kill numbers would likely drive down wolf populations in the region. That’s exactly what those who make a business out of wolf watching say is the problem.
Cara McGary of In Our Nature Guide Services testified and then told MTN later, “I think that the message our commissioners to our visitors is that they don’t have any regard for their experience and they don’t seem to appreciate the millions of dollars that our visitors spend in the state of Montana.”
Emil McCain, the owner of Yellowstone Wild Tours, noted that publicity around the wolf hunt is cutting both ways.
“It seems like the news has actually gotten into both communities," he said. "Both the pro-wolf community, who is holding back on coming to see wolves in the park because they’re afraid there won’t be any wolves left. But it seems the word is also out to the wolf hunting community that this is the place to come shoot a wolf right now. So. I’m extremely worried that the last six wolves might also be harvested right here in 313.”
McCain went on to take the Fish and Wildlife commissioners to task for what he called inconsistent management practices.
“They are currently increasing elk seasons and quotas to curb the above objective populations, especially in light of chronic wasting disease and brucellosis, but also claiming there are too many wolves. I want to ask them which is it? Too many elk? Or too many wolves? You can’t have both,” he said.
The commission allowed three minutes for public comment. Afterward, many people complained that was not enough time based on the number of people who wanted to speak. McGary said, “that was a really negative outcome.”
Since many hunters are in the field at the same time it is possible that the limit of 82 wolves for the region will be exceeded if multiple hunters take wolves at the same time that the threshold of 82 is met.
Dan Bailey, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, issued a statement Friday evening, weighing in on the decision:
“While today’s decision provides some level of progress, it’s disappointing that the commission declined amendments by Commissioners KC Walsh and Pat Byorth to immediately end hunting and trapping in the two districts at Yellowstone’s northern border. Twenty wolves have been killed in areas just outside of the national park’s northern boundary so far this hunting season and Yellowstone’s wolf population has dropped by 30%. Many of these animals were born and raised within Yellowstone National Park and were long protected by hunting quotas, which reflected the economic values these wolves bring to our gateway communities. Unfortunately, the commission eliminated those quotas last summer and severely limited public comment today ensuring very few business leaders and local voices time to address these issues.”