By REBECCA MARSTON/ Montana State News

Within a region, populations of wildlife cannot exist in isolation; changes that occur in one population will affect all of the others. This has proven especially true over the decades for Montana’s gray wolves.

That’s where state agencies like the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks come into play: One of their main goals is to preserve and manage the animal populations that reside within Montana. With a state full of large, elusive and sometimes dangerous mammals, this is not always an easy task.

According to their website, the FWP’s “wolf team” consists of a group of experts with over 35 years of combined experience dealing with wolves. They work throughout the state, “monitoring the wolf population, investigating wolf reports, working with landowners, and doing public outreach.”

Public education about animal management in Montana is important to the FWP, because as wildlife populations rise and fall in numbers, hunters, recreationists and naturalists need to understand how they are being dealt with.

For over 30 years, wolves were listed as endangered in this region. At that time, the FWP needed to enact policies that supported their return, and this meant banning the hunting of wolves in Montana. At that time wolves were allowed to live and thrive in peace.

However, things have changed since those days, and the luck has shifted for wolves in the western United States. In 2009, elk and deer hunters were finding many more signs of wolves than they were elk and deer in the wild. Hunters gathered in protest, demanding that the FWP do something about it.

However, their protest was not unjust and their observations proved to be correct. In 2012, wolves were taken off the federal endangered species list. Furthermore, since the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Montana in 1995, it has been officially noted by the FWP that some elk and deer populations have been on the decline. This has caused the gray wolf, once a protected predator, to become the prey.

According to FWP Bureau Chief Robert Aasheim, “FWP believes wolves are fully recovered and should be managed by the state as other wildlife in the state are.” Other species managed by the FWP include mountain lions, bears, elk, bald eagles, and bighorn sheep.

The FWP staff spend their time in the field “monitoring population numbers, working with private landowners and assisting with depredation removals,” according to Aasheim.

For wolves in particular, this management consists of the hunting, trapping and removal of wolves that are known to be preying on livestock. It also means balancing the number of wild prey that are killed by wolves. “Elk and deer are prey of wolves, and wolves have affected numbers and distribution in some areas,” said Aasheim. Elk and deer populations are defended in part by modifications of the regulations placed on hunters during wolf hunting season.

This effort led to another recent development in wolf management — the passing of House Bill 73. According to Aasheim, it “allows multiple hunting licenses per hunter per FWP commission rule; electronic calls; hunting without hunter orange after the general big game season, and reduces the nonresident license fee from $350 to $50.”

Aside from hunting wolves in season, it is legal for a human to kill a wolf in self defense or if it is seen attacking dogs or chasing livestock. However, the FWP prefers that people take precautionary measures to ensure encounters of this kind are few and far between.

Striving to live and recreate amongst wolves, the FWP has several guidelines to maintain safety while in wolf territory. Most importantly, the FWP warns people not to be careless with food or to feed wild animals, including wolves but also deer, turkeys, or other wildlife that may attract wolves.

If a wolf is too close for comfort, citizens are encouraged to make loud noises to scare them away. If all else fails, it is wise to carry bear spray or pepper spray as defense against a wolf attack.

With that said, wolf attacks in Montana are fairly rare. They tend to shy away from humans and instead go for livestock and other wild prey. Unfortunately for Montanan farmers, wolves often attack large groups of livestock for no apparent reason, leaving many wounded and uneaten. For this reason, it is even more important for the FWP to manage wolves because they are affecting the livelihoods of Montana farmers and ranchers.

According to the Montana Constitution, the legislature “shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.” Montana’s Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks has made this message their mission.

To report a dead wolf or possible illegal hunting activity, citizens may call the FWP at 1-800-TIP-MONT.

– Edited by Codie Wyers 

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