HAMILTON - Tony Jones doesn't believe the elk herd in the West Fork of the Bitterroot will survive years of haggling over how wolves should be managed.
Last week, 12 Montana sportsmen groups agreed with him.
The Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Wildlife Association and 10 rod and gun clubs said they'll support Jones and the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association's effort to acquire permission to kill wolves to protect elk herds in the Bitterroot Valley.
The Ravalli County group wants the state to seek permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement the Endangered Species Act's 10(j) rule in portions of the valley where elk populations have dramatically declined.
The rule allows states with approved wolf management plans the ability to manage wolves to ensure the health of ungulate herds, including reducing wolf numbers.
The Bitterroot group made its formal request after a ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy put wolves back on the federal endangered species list and canceled this year's wolf hunting season.
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"The legal and political battles over the wolf delisting will take time, and while we support FWP in these battles, elk populations in many hunting districts in Montana just don't have the kind of time it takes for the system to work," said Tony Jones, Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association president.
Calf and bull numbers are "extremely low" in portions of the Bitterroot, Jones said.
Four of the five Bitterroot hunting districts are under state elk plan population objectives. In the hardest hit West Fork area, elk numbers are a "whopping 60 percent under objective," he said.
"These numbers will not sustain an elk herd and are unacceptable," Jones said.
FWP statewide wolf coordinator Carolyn Sime said the department is looking at a wide range of options to return wolf management back to Montana.
All will take time.
"Removing wolves in 2010 is unlikely," she said. "There is a lot of road ahead on any proposal ... 2011 may be in the game, but it's hard to say. We have some work ahead of us."
All of the options take a toll on the state's limited resources and so decision makers are going to be very careful in deciding which ones to follow, Sime said.
For the state to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a 10(j) provision, it would first have to draft a proposal. That proposal has to go through a peer review process, followed by a public comment period. Once that is completed, it would be submitted to the Service for approval.
"We have to be realistic," she said. "The process has steps that can't be skipped ... and in the end, it's a postage stamp approach that kills some wolves to protect big game in a relatively small area. It really comes up short with the goal of statewide management for wolves."
The groups also plan to ask FWP to consider revising its elk plan to reflect the realities of a rapidly changing landscape in Montana.
"When we look at the many threats that wildlife populations and specifically elk are facing, it is clear that reassessing the 2005 Elk Management Plan is critical in order to help ensure a sustainable big game heritage," said Joelle Selk, vice president of the Montana Bowhunters Association. "Modifying that plan to consider the loss of winter range, conifer encroachment and a dramatic increase in predators on the landscape is the best method of allowing FWP to continue to manage for elk populations throughout Montana, rather than allowing politicians or emotional appeals to manage our wildlife."
The current elk management plan is geared toward managing hunters and doesn't allow the state to react quickly enough when elk numbers start to decline, Jones said.
Under the present plan, it can take up to four years to ratchet the season down to a limited permit season once biologists begin documenting a decline in elk calf numbers.
"The West Fork could be a real model on why that approach doesn't work," Jones said. "In 2005, we were pushing 2,000 elk and now we're down to about 750. Look what's happened in five years. What's going to happen in another four?"
The Montana Wildlife Federation's Ben Lamb said the coalition recognizes that elk populations in some parts of the state are doing quite well. And in places where elk are struggling, there are other factors that could be playing a role in their decline, he said.
"We're not saying that wolves are killing every elk out there," Lamb said, "but in some places where elk aren't doing well - like northwest Montana, the Bitterroot and some places in southwest Montana - there are high concentrations of critters with big teeth."