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Opinion: Idaho’s wolf hunting bounties are a warning to Montana

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Earlier this month, Idaho placed bounties on the heads of its wolves. After adopting legislation that allows hunters to slaughter 90% of the state’s wolves in this fall’s hunt, the Idaho Fish and Game Department announced that it will pay hunters up to $2,500 for each wolf they kill. It’s clear that our neighbors in Idaho are taking ever more extreme steps to drive the species to extinction.

I worry that Montana will follow in Idaho’s footsteps. This year’s Montana hunt can kill up to 85% of our wolves, and allows hunters to put out bait to lure wolves, even though that practice is illegal when hunting any other animal in the state. For just $13.80 per head, a Montana hunter can shoot up to 10 wolves. Like Idaho, we’re on the path towards decimating our wolf population. The federal government must step in to protect our wolves before Montana places bounties on wolf carcasses, too.

Ever since wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2020, state governments across the Mountain West have authorized devastating hunts. As fears and misconceptions about wolves cloud our judgement, Idaho and Montana are enabling and encouraging the decimation of the species. The federal government has the power to reverse these devastating state-level wolf management decisions in the Mountain West by relisting wolves to the Endangered Species List.

In Montana, our state has allowed its fear of wolves to influence our hunting laws. Whether it’s because of popular fairy tales that villainize wolves, or an ingrained aversion to top predators, we don’t treat wolves the same way we would treat other creatures. I saw this firsthand when our zoo’s wolf pup Simpson, who was rescued and brought to us when only a few weeks old, needed a lifesaving surgery. Many balked at the thought of spending resources to help a baby wolf and raged against our decision to proceed with the surgery (including a death threat); however, had this been for a red panda, no one would have batted an eye.

But at the zoo, we’ve made a concerted effort to educate the public about the benefits wolves offer. When visitors see wolves up close, look the animals in the eye, and laugh at their playful antics, they don't see the politics or the fear, but instead the beautiful creatures in front of them. Our educators highlight all that wolves do to protect our environment and support our economy. Whether we like it or not, Montanans depend on these creatures. Our state’s extreme wolf hunts, authorized out of fear rather than science, are reckless.

We rely on wolves to keep the environment safe and healthy across the Mountain West. As a keystone species, wolves control the populations of large grazing animals, and in turn, protect the diversity of vegetation and integrity of the land — ensuring that all of us can enjoy and benefit from it. When wolves vanished from Yellowstone National Park, the landscape was quickly devastated. When wolves were reintroduced, the environment bounced back, improving the health and quantity of the land, animals, and vegetation.

Wolves support our economy by keeping our environment strong and controlling the numbers of elk and deer. Though it is believed that these creatures jeopardize livestock, they’re responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses, and studies demonstrate that economic benefits wolves offer — by maintaining our biodiversity, encouraging tourism, and even preventing car crashes — outweighs the cost of these handful of livestock losses.

If Montana follows in Idaho’s footsteps, our communities, our environment, and our economy will all suffer the consequences. I urge the federal government to do its part to protect the species by relisting wolves.

Jeff Ewelt is executive director of ZooMontana.

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