Not everyone was happy when the gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies, near extinction in the mid-1970’s, staged a remarkable comeback under the protections of the Endangered Species Act. By the end of last year there were about 1,650 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Ranchers complained that the wolves were killing their sheep and cattle; hunters complained that they were devastating big game, mainly elk.
So when protections were lifted earlier this year in Idaho and Montana the states immediately approved wolf hunting seasons. But what seemed to be an ordinary big-game hunt, with licenses and duly apportioned quotas (75 in Montana, 220 in Idaho), now looks like the opening of a new front in the age-old war on wolves.
Once the season opened in Montana, some of the most-studied wolves in Yellowstone, including a female that scientists had been tracking for years, were killed almost immediately just outside the park, jeopardizing several scientific studies. The reaction from the state’s wolf program director? “We didn’t think wolves would be that vulnerable to firearms harvest.” By the time Montana’s season ended on Nov. 17, 72 wolves had been shot — 3 short of the state’s quota — out of a total population of some 500.
Nothing lays bare the true point of the wolf season more than Idaho’s recent decision to extend its hunt by three months, ending on March 31. The reason is that hunters have simply not killed enough wolves — only half of the state’s quota of 220 so far.
Environmental groups and other wolf advocates argued, before protections were lifted last spring, that populations across the Northern Rockies had not in fact reached sustainable levels. Having lost that argument, they are now insisting on stronger state management plans, and a moratorium on hunting until such plans can be formulated. This is a fair request. What matters is the survival of not just a few token wolves, but strong, genetically healthy wolf populations.
Originally Published: December 1, 2009