BILLINGS — The wolf debate dates back decades. But a new study recently published by the University of Montana found Montanans are growing increasingly accepting of wolves.
It turns out, many Montana residents disagree with the poll's results.
"I think they should just stay where they originally came from,” said Molly Losing, a Baker rancher and horse breeder.
Wolves have long been a hot topic in Montana.
"I am totally anti-wolf,” said Jerome Vandersloot, a hunter from Hardin.
In 1926, wolves were successfully eradicated in Yellowstone National Park following claims from farmers and ranchers of the animals killing off livestock.
"It’s very heartbreaking for one thing because you raise these animals and you try your best to keep them, house them, everything in the best way possible,” Losing said. “They go after the most vulnerable, which is usually the young calves and yearlings."
But Jeff Ewelt, the executive director of ZooMontana, said the decision to kill off the wolves proved to be wrong.
"You have to have a top predator in an ecosystem and wolves play that role," Ewelt said. "If you take that top predator out, the entire ecosystem's going to collapse. And the crazy thing is, we saw that happen right in Yellowstone National Park."
Ranchers and hunters still argue that the animals are dangerous.
"If wolves were to come in and start taking everything over, then they would just wreak havoc out here,” Losing said. "They are not susceptible to the natural canine diseases that coyotes and everybody carry out here. Coyotes will die of Canine Distemper and Parvo Virus. Wolves, they will probably show symptoms, they can carry it. But it doesn’t always kill them. But they can sure go around and spread it."
Losing has had her fair share of wolf encounters.
"We’ve seen them around here. They are not like coyotes, where coyotes will run away from you," Losing said. "But wolves will stare you down. And it’s quite frightening."
Vandersloot is an avid hunter and said the impact of wolves is obvious. Over the past seven years, he’s only been able to harvest one elk.
"Over the years of hunting, I’ve noticed a very, very drastic decline in elk and deer populations. I spoke to an old guy earlier this last hunting season. He’s hunted an area south of Big Timber and he hasn’t seen elk there in 20 years. I guess they used to be plentiful before that,” Vandersloot said. “The wolves, they did have their place. But I think they’ve done their job and they’re starting to overdo their job."
Ewelt argued the animals are beneficial to the ecosystem and most negative claims made about wolves aren't factual.
"We understand that it’s people's livelihoods. Especially when it comes to ranching, we get that. We really do. But there are programs to help reimburse for those situations. The likelihood of a wolf taking livestock is actually quite rare in terms of other animals that do predate on livestock. And so wolves are often just blamed for a lot of this," Ewelt said. "When it comes to the hunting, the argument that they are decimating the elk population simply is false. All the studies done have not been able to correlate the fact that wolves are diminishing the elk population. In fact, wolves actually help it. They take sick and injured animals, and then in turn, that helps to help benefit the ecosystem as well."
According to the University of Montana and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in 2023, 74% of the general population said they were 'tolerant’ of wolves. That's up from 50% in 2017 and 41% in 2012, claiming Montanans are growing more accepting of the animal.
But a decision made last Tuesday by the federal agency that oversees the Endangered Species Act tells a different story.
A petition to add Northern Rockies wolves back onto the list of endangered and threatened species was denied. A 2022 study by FWP states there were only 1,087 wolves in the state.
Ewelt said it’s time to put the animals first.
"Wolf debate in Montana and really out in the West, it’s been forever. I mean, it’s a generational thing,” Ewelt said. "These animals need some love. And the more that they can get, the better for the species."
One thing’s for sure - the debate over wolves will continue, most likely for generations to come.
To read the results from UM's study, click here.
To read more about the denied petition to restore protections for gray wolves, click here.