Editor’s Call: Wolf Hunting in Lower 48?

Thank you, Montana.

In late February, anticipating the delisting of timber wolves from federal endangered species protection, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission set season dates for a 2008 hunt. Opening day for the state’s first-ever wolf hunt is slated for Oct. 26.

But hold on a minute before you rush out to buy a wolf hunting license. No wolf hunting season will happen this fall in Montana.

Animal-protectionist groups will do everything possible to make sure the wolf hunting season is halted before any of us have a chance to take part. They’ve already raised their legal hackles, firing off letters of intent to sue and filing for court injunctions against any sport harvest.

I have no doubt they’ll win the legal battle to stop Montana’s season this year. And they might even succeed in wiping away the 2009 season.

It’s going to be an expensive fight for the animal protectionists. But eventually, we’re going to be able to hunt and trap wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

You see, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service no longer wants to bear the costs and responsibility of managing wolves. By delisting the Great Lakes population on March 12, 2007, and now moving to take the same measure for Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, the feds are putting wolf management entirely into the hands of each individual state with a healthy population.

And despite what animal protectionist people want you to think, the wolf population in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies is healthy. Too healthy, in some places. An estimated 1,500 wolves roam Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Under the USFWS recovery plan initiated in the mid-1990s, the goal is to have a stable population of 300 wolves in that region. The Great Lakes population is estimated at 4,000 wolves, with Minnesota harboring nearly 3,000.

None of the Great Lakes states has initiated plans for a hunt, however, but sport harvest is included in the wolf management plans for each state. Wyoming and Idaho are also considering wolf hunts, although neither has established season parameters.

So why are the western states pushing so hard to knock down the population of an animal the federal government has spent $27 million to protect since 1974?

Livestock loss payments. And secondarily, the threat to big-game populations such as elk and deer that bring millions of dollars of hunter tourism to the states every year.

For many years, wildlife agencies had no choice but to protect individual wolves, whether they killed cattle or not. With delisting, the states are free to kill animals that prey on livestock. Agriculture is a major industry in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Having to pay for wolf damage without much recourse to solve the problem was painful.

The next step is a limited management harvest to maintain a population that fits each state’s wolf carrying capacity. The goal is to have wolves be part of a balanced wildlife equation — to thrive as a top predator, but not to harm populations of other animals.

An adult wolf can kill and eat an estimated 18 deer per year. Studies have shown that wolves don’t limit themselves to preying on weak and injured animals. They’ll take down a trophy bull elk or massive muley buck just the same. As a result, having too many wolves on the landscape threatens big-game management programs.

Whether you love wolves or hate them, biologists have concluded the population has recovered in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains.

Realistically, when a Lower 48 state finally breaks through a litany of lawsuits filed by animal protectionists and has the legal authority to conduct a sport harvest, wolf hunting will be a very limited pursuit. Trappers might have to wait for a few seasons. Even then, the quotas will be low and the restrictions many.

It’s going to be a long road, but we’re on the way to having wolf seasons in the United States outside of Alaska.

Montana has fired the first shot.

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