In 1990 the federal government established a committee for the recovery of gray wolves after the population in Montana dropped to an estimated 45. After years of recovery efforts, the wolf population rose to 422 in 2008, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) established a limited hunting season for wolves. After several years of the hunting season, wolf populations continue to grow.
During the first year of the hunting season, 2009, 72 were harvested from a quota of 75 wolves. Since then, the population has risen to 625 wolves. George Pauley from MFWP commented, “The population is larger than we want it to be.” This has led MFWP to extend the wolf hunting season, reduce the cost of out-of-state licenses and increase the bag limit to five wolves per hunter.
Right now, hunters are not harvesting enough wolves to keep the population from growing. This has adverse side effects for ranchers with livestock. In 2008, when the wolf population was 422, “approximately $83,000 [was] paid in claims for livestock that [was] verified by USDA Wildlife Services as having been killed by wolves.” With continuing population growth this has become an even bigger problem for owners of livestock, prompting MFWP to encourage more and more hunters to harvest wolves. The wolf hunt also helps to cover the cost of reimbursing livestock, the sale of wolf licenses brought $400,000 of income to MFWP in 2011.
The rising wolf population led to a raised quota until 2012, when harvest quotas were dropped from all but three districts. Hunters have harvested a smaller percentage of the quota each year since 2009. In 2011, 75 percent of the wolf quota was harvested even after the season was extended.
So far, three weeks into the hunting season, 6,000 permits have been sold to hunt the 625 wolves in Montana. Compared to 2011 when, for the entire year, 19,000 permits were sold and 166 wolves were harvested. Last year, 19,000 permits were sold and 225 wolves were harvested. The large majority of hunters purchasing licenses are not harvesting wolves, partially because only 46 percent of hunters were primarily hunting wolves.
This situation comes off of an inverse of the situation when wolves in Montana were first hunted to near extinction. Wolves were initially targeted by hunters due to depredation laws seeking to reduce the risk of wolves killing livestock. With increased effort put into reducing the wolf population, MFWP runs the risk of decreasing the population to 100 wolves, or the number at which they will return to the endangered species list.
At the moment MFWP has no set target for the wolf population. The rising wolf population and increased danger to livestock poses a dire problem for Montana. MFWP needs to seek out ways to encourage hunters to assist in a satisfactory reduction of the wolf population, while not simultaneously driving the series back to the endangered species list.