Jay Mallonee had a simple question.
If you have 497 wolves in January 2009, kill 280 of them, and add back 166 new pups, does it add up to 524 wolves in December 2009? Or do you get 446?
“In 2009, 141 wolves showed up in addition to the pups born,” Mallonee said. “Where did that number come from? There’s no justification for it. They just added it to the total wolves for the year. So 27 percent of your total came from nowhere.”
Mallonee doesn’t profess to know how many wolves live in Montana. He simply looked at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks annual wolf reports and poked at the math.
“They use that as a reference point to go kill more wolves, and that’s what I object to,” the Kalispell computer technician and former college professor said. “Other people should ask, too. It’s their environment. It’s their wolves.”
Unlike other people, Mallonee took the trouble to publish his findings in a publicly available scientific journal. FWP researchers have also published papers in journals, attempting to justify their wolf population calculations. But while they acknowledge the math is murky, they maintain it’s accurate enough to set wolf-hunting quotas.
So this fall’s hunting quota of 220 wolves was picked assuming Montana now has 566 wolves, and will add at least 79 more through new births and recruitment. That should bring the 2011 final total to 425 wolves.
Mallonee questions those figures, too, especially the “recruitment” part. The state reports 524 wolves at the start of the year. It tabulates 188 wolves removed from the population by natural causes, dispersal, human control and unknown reasons. It reports 140 new pups born. But at the end of the year, it reports a new total of 566 wolves. That includes 90 wolves unaccounted for.
“I’ve taught college-level science courses for 20 years,” Mallonee said. “If one of my students had handed this in, they would have flunked their assignment. The basic science is not present.”
Justin Gude is chief of wildlife research at FWP in Helena. He was lead author of a scientific paper published last November that explained a mathematical model for predicting wolf growth rates. It also argued against another growth rate model put forth by Montana State University researchers Scott Creel and Jay Rotella.
Both those computer models are separate from how FWP produces its published wolf population numbers. In their paper, Gude and his co-authors described how wolves are counted in the Northern Rocky Mountains.
“Approximately 30 percent of the known NRM (Northern Rocky Mountain) wolf packs were monitored annually, and observations from monitoring these wolves were supplemented by agency track surveys and public observations of wolf pack size for the remaining packs,” they wrote.
The counts also include wolves killed and wolves “recruited” into the population. Whether counted by observation or computer formula, it’s those wolves that fall in the phantom area.
“Our counts are not perfect,” Gude said. “We can’t always document why a pack was six (members) one year and 10 the next year. But the end-of-the-year number is every wolf we know about and can document.”
That includes the X-factor wolves that Mallonee doubts. Gude said those wolves could be coming in from Idaho or Canada, or might simply have been missed in previous counts. They could be formerly lone (and hard-to-spot) wolves who’ve since joined packs (and been spotted). But bottom line, Gude said, they’re real wolves.
Mallonee is not the only one questioning FWP wolf numbers. Missoulian Toby Bridges has publicly criticized the agency for years, accusing it of undercounting wolf populations.
On his “Lobo Watch” website, Bridges recently claimed to have personally seen 16 wolves in the past year.
“If one person can physically see that many wolves while traveling a state the size of Montana,” Bridges wrote, “there are a heck of a lot more wolves here than the ‘at least’ number that Fish, Wildlife and Parks is now touting.”
“If we use the math that wolf biologist Dr. L. David Mech used in his 2008 delisting declaration, Montana now surely has ‘at least’ 1,500 to 1,600 wolves (possibly as many as 2,000),” Bridges went on. “If FWP sticks with their 566 population count, and fills a quota of 220, that means there will still be 1,280 to 1,380 wolves in this state. And with the birthing of pups next spring, at a 25 percent reproduction increase, the number of wolves will jump right back to anywhere from 1,536 to 1,656 wolves – more than the number we truly have now.”
“We’ve tried to be clear about that all the time,” Gude said. “The minimum number is a conservative number. There are more wolves than the minimum.”
How many more, we’re not likely to know. Budgets and resources for wolf monitoring have shrunk since the animal was removed from federal Endangered Species List protection. But one number FWP does know is how many wolves it must have to retain state control over their management. If the population dips below 150, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could consider returning wolves to federal supervision.
Gude’s mathematical model looks at the same wolf statistics over the past decade and builds a formula to predict growth. It correctly forecasted all the population increases over the decade and one of the three population declines.
That’s important because if Montana loses wolf counters, it may need to rely on the computer models to set hunting quotas. Gude acknowledged that the longer that goes on without on-the-ground verification, the more his model’s value decays.
Mallonee’s homework has its own questionable bits. A crucial rule in scientific debate requires that everyone use facts published in peer-reviewed journals. Mallonee published his seven-page paper in an Internet-based journal called Nature and Science, published by Marsland Press of Lansing, Mich., and Richmond Hill, N.Y.
In contrast, Gude published his 11-page paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Nature and Science does not appear in the Thomson-Reuters citation ranking lists, which catalog the relative status of scientific journals. Journal of Wildlife Management is one of the highest-ranked publications in biology.
Is that important? Mallonee doesn’t think so. He said it shouldn’t matter if he published in Reader’s Digest, so long as his material was reviewed by other scientists and the work itself is there for all to see.
FWP officials questioned the rigor of Nature and Science reviewers, and suggested Mallonee submit it to the Journal of Wildlife Management. Mallonee said he couldn’t afford to do that, having already raided his own savings to publish in Nature and Science.
And while the Journal of Wildlife Management sits at the top of the scientific publication food chain, a critic could observe that all the authors of “Wolf Population Dynamics” – including Gude, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf coordinator Ed Bangs and FWP Commissioner Bob Ream – all have a vested interest in promoting their view of the wolf world and the government budget to pay for its publication.
Retired FWP deputy director Chris Smith acknowledged that arguments always rage about how best to count wild animals.
“Wildlife management, whether you’re talking about wolf or deer or any other species, is as much art as science,” Smith said. “You use the best information you have available, monitoring results and adapting based on what you see.”
“I think FWP has always done a pretty good job of that,” Smith said. “Look at our elk, deer and sheep populations and what we know about them. I don’t see how it would be different than management of other species.”