HAMILTON - With elk populations teetering on the brink of collapse in portions of the upper Bitterroot Valley, a local sportsmen's organization is asking state and federal wildlife agencies to significantly reduce the number of wolves in the region under a process allowed by the Endangered Species Act.
The Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association made the formal request to the governor's office and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks after a court ruling put this year's wolf hunting season on hold.
The association wants state and federal agencies to initiate a process under the Endangered Species Act's 10(j) rule that allows states with approved wolf management plans to manage wolves to ensure the health of elk and deer herds.
"Frankly, we believe that the threat to the very viability of the elk herd in the upper Bitterroot is dependent upon an aggressive wolf reduction program, as their numbers in the area are far beyond what was called for in the reintroduction process or any balanced sense of wildlife management," said Tony Jones, the association's president in a letter to FWP.
FWP wolf program coordinator Carolyn Sime said managing wolf numbers under provisions of the 10(j) rule is one of a number of alternatives the state is considering.
Idaho Fish and Game officials said that state is also considering asking the federal government for permission to use the rule to reduce wolf populations in places where elk numbers have declined due to predation.
The ESA's 10(j) rule was revised in 2008 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give states more latitude in managing wolves that were affecting ungulate herds.
That same year, environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the revised rule in U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's court in Missoula.
Wolves were delisted in March 2009 and the lawsuit was put on hold after Idaho dropped its request to implement the rule.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said that lawsuit will move forward now that states are considering asking for permission to use the rule to kill wolves.
Robinson said wolves have been made the scapegoat of declining elk numbers that are the result of habitat degradation and other factors.
"We consider it a misplaced attempt to use the rule to kill wolves. ... Our lawsuit will move forward," Robinson said.
The 10(j) rule applies only to the portion of the wolf population classified as experimental, which includes wolves in the Bitterroot Valley. Wolves in the northern half of Montana are classified as endangered under the ESA.
While the state is looking at the potential of the 10(j) rule, Sime said officials are also considering a number of alternatives that would address wolf management in all parts of Montana.
The rule would take time to implement. The ESA requires states to offer the public an opportunity to comment and a peer review process, Sime said.
"We recognize the concerns of the local sportsmen," Sime said. "They are invested in that elk herd. If it weren't for Montana hunters, we wouldn't enjoy the wildlife that we have."
Time isn't something that elk have in the West Fork, Jones said.
"We hear people talking about potentially rewriting the Endangered Species Act or appealing the decision," Jones said. "Those are all great ideas, but they are going to take time. The elk in the Bitterroot don't have that kind of time."
Elk numbers in the West Fork of the Bitterroot have dramatically declined over the past five years while wolf numbers have grown.
In 2005, biologists counted 1,917 elk in the hunting district associated with the West Fork. Those numbers have dropped to something close to 750 over the past two years.
Biologists could only find four bulls for every 100 cows this spring. The calf/cow ratio stood at nine per 100 last year. Ideally, calf numbers should be closer to 35 per 100 cows for a sustainable elk herd.
The next big decline in elk numbers will happen in the next couple of years when there aren't new animals to replace the ones that die, Jones said.
The state has set new seasons to cut back on elk harvest this year. There are virtually no opportunities left in the Bitterroot Valley to hunt cow elk, Jones said.
"Hunters have done their part in attempting to protect elk herds in the Bitterroot," he said. "Now we need to do something about the predators here before there is nothing left to protect."
Jones' letter asked that state and federal wildlife agencies begin "immediately, or sooner if that is possible" to implement the process to remove a significant number of wolves.
"We believe we have in hand, as a result of the tremendous work done in that area by field biologists, scientific documentation of this need - and that the time to act is now," the letter read. "Right now, in fact."
Ravalli Republic editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300, or firstname.lastname@example.org.