The recent Montana legislative session will be remembered as the most anti-wildlife session in recent history. The Legislature’s power grab signaled to the people of Montana that politics, not science and agency professionals, will be the leading voice in wildlife management.
The slew of anti-wolf bills signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte this year — along with similar legislation in Idaho — recall the anti-predator hysteria of the early 1900s that originally led to the near-extirpation of wolves from the lower 48-states.
Senate Bill 314 requires the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to establish rules to reduce the wolf population to approximately 150 wolves, reducing the population by close to 85 percent. To reduce the wolf population by this amount, SB 314 directs the FWP Commission to allow activities such as unlimited wolf harvest by a single license holder, the use of bait for hunting and trapping, and night hunting on private lands.
House Bill 225 extends the wolf trapping season by a month. HB 224 allows licensed trappers to use snares to kill wolves. SB 267 establishes a bounty by allowing so-called reimbursements for costs incurred for hunting and trapping wolves. In Idaho, S. 1211, now before Gov. Brad Little, legislatively pushes to reduce the wolf-population there to 150 wolves using similar methods as those included in SB 314. These new laws establish a disturbing trend of politics interfering in wildlife management and they are sure to land wolves back on the endangered species list.
Each of these bills, on its own, is cruel and unnecessary. Together, they are alarming. The tired rhetoric that was repeated time and again during hearings for these bills is that wolves are destroying game populations and wolves are destroying the livestock industry. Both claims are false.
In fact, a quick search on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ website shows that, at least since 2013, no region of the state has had an elk population below the objective. In fact, as far as elk go, population numbers are consistently over objective in regions 3-7. While mule deer populations are decreasing in some areas of the state, this cannot be attributed to wolf predation as there are numerous other, habitat-related factors that contribute to deer mortality such as forage production, forage quality and winter severity.
Wolves are not destroying the livestock industry, either. According to the Montana Livestock Loss Board, there were 60 cattle deaths confirmed as wolf depredations in 2020. The state of Montana had approximately 2.5 million cattle in 2020. This means wolves only killed 0.0024% of Montana’s cows in 2020. There also were 49 sheep confirmed to be killed by wolves. This is out of the 200,000 sheep raised in Montana in 2020, or approximately 0.025%. Even an inflated estimate recently released by the United States Department of Agriculture, claiming 400 sheep and lambs were killed by wolves in 2020 in Montana, still only amounts to 0.2% of all sheep and lambs in the state. By contrast, non-predator losses such as disease, poison and weather killed 10% of Montana’s sheep in 2020. With generous reimbursement programs for livestock producers that lose livestock to wolves and substantially higher livestock losses attributed to weather and disease, it can hardly be said that wolves are destroying the livestock industry.
The ruthless killing of wolves encouraged by Montana’s new laws is contrary to sound, science-based management. If the legislature is serious about reducing livestock depredations, Montana should invest in nonlethal methods that science shows actually work to prevent conflicts and save livestock.
Montana’s anti-wolf bills come immediately following the nationwide delisting of gray wolves. But, the recent state legislative events are a stark and timely depiction of why gray wolves still need federal protection. Gray wolves still only occupy approximately 15% of their historic range. With these newly authorized death sentences for gray wolves in Idaho and Montana, dispersal from these higher population centers to recolonize former range will be sabotaged.
The irony here is that Montana wants so badly to be responsible for wildlife management, and not have federal oversight. But the combination of bills passed this year in the legislature amounts to Montana shooting itself in the foot. These bills will almost certainly land gray wolves on the endangered species list again. While the safeguard of an Endangered Species Act listing would be welcome to ensure Montana doesn’t lead the charge in wiping out gray wolves from the Lower 48, I hope that Montana can instead get its act together and allow wildlife to exist on the landscape.
Gray wolves are key to healthy and functioning ecosystems. Instead of turning to the most brutal management available — uncontrolled slaughter — Montanans should instead focus on coexistence with wolves. The ecological benefits of having these species on the landscape are profound.
Jocelyn Leroux is the Washington-Montana Director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.