Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced this week that hunters and trappers harvested 230 wolves in a season that ended Feb. 28. Despite the lack of a statewide harvest quota, a bag limit of five wolves per person and the newly allowed use of electronic calls, the total topped last year's take by only five wolves.
The news comes on the heels of another wolf-related announcement from the agency, one that has riled advocates for the animal. Last week, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a new rule making it legal for landowners to kill wolves on private property without a license. The provision stems from a bill passed by the 2013 Montana Legislature, and has been a point of contention in the state's ongoing debate over wolf management.
"We took something over 1,300 public comments," FWP wildlife management section chief Quentin Kujala said during the March 13 meeting, "which has, like it always does, proven to be a great asset in the conversation."
The prospect of an even more liberalized wolf policy has made some in the state uneasy, but FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim says agency officials have been reassured by another set of numbers gleaned over the past year. In 2013, wolf depredations on livestock were at their lowest in seven years, and the number of problem wolves removed from the population fell to 75 from 108 the year before. Aasheim credits this not only to lethal measures like the hunting season but to nonlethal management like range riders and fladry—vertical strips of fabric on fences that frighten wolves and coyotes.
"We're learning some things," Aasheim says, adding that a new minimum population estimate for wolves in Montana should also be released in the coming weeks. "In other words, it wasn't just about killing wolves. It was about doing things to prevent them from making bad decisions or decisions that weren't tolerated."
Still, the radical change in wolf policy will continue to generate waves in the same manner as a standing proposal from the U.S. Department of the Interior to delist gray wolves nationwide. The latter has prompted opponents to host a string of simultaneous rallies in several cities including Missoula on March 24. The event is being promoted on social media by the Wolf and Wildlife Action Group.
FWP is fully aware that its actions annoy some.
"Any time you discuss any changes to wolf management or wolf numbers, it colors the debate," Aasheim says. "On the other hand, it is a tool, and we're counting on landowners to make good decisions."