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An illustration of howling wolves and a map of Montana. Amanda Northrop/Vox

The bizarre push to kill more of Montana’s wolves, explained

Four new hunting bills in the Big Sky State are reigniting a centuries-old debate.

Late this winter, Greg Gianforte, Montana’s recently elected Republican governor, trapped and shot a male wolf just outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park at a private ranch owned by his pal Robert E. Smith, a director of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group (a former campaign donor).

Hunting wolves is legal in Montana, and Gianforte later told the Helena Independent Record that he’d been after one for five years. “I put a lot of time in over many, many years and not every sportsman is fortunate to ultimately harvest a wolf,” said Gianforte, who added that he planned to mount it on his wall.

Not everyone who initially knew about the governor’s trophy was impressed, apparently. In the weeks after the hunt, someone tipped off a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau that not only had the governor killed one of the 94 wolves that frequent Yellowstone, but he’d also failed to comply with a state regulation requiring hunters take a wolf-trapping course before catching an animal.

Nate Hegyi, the bureau reporter, also learned that the wolf had a name, “1155.” It had worn a radio collar since 2018 when National Park Service biologists began to track his movements in and out of the park.

The timing of the governor’s hunting protocol gaffe was disconcerting to conservationists already worried about the fate of Montana’s wolves. Gianforte, the first Republican governor in 16 years, would soon be deciding on several hunter-friendly bills to relax restrictions on killing wolves.

The argument behind those bills — which seek to legalize a range of new hunting methods and offer reimbursement to trappers for their expenses — is that wolves in Montana are killing too many game species like elk and deer, which people like to hunt. As of 2019, there were almost 1,200 wolves in Montana, according to the state’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department. (The agency hasn’t yet released numbers for 2020.)

“Wolf numbers need to be reduced,” Paul Fielder, a Republican state representative behind two of the four bills, told Vox. One of them legalizes the use of snares, which catch and choke animals to death.

“Allowing the snaring of wolves in Montana by licensed trappers will give wildlife managers another tool to reduce wolf numbers — especially in areas where ungulate populations are stressed by wolves,” Fielder said at a state hearing in February.

There’s just one problem: This isn’t true. Parks department data doesn’t indicate that hoofed wildlife populations are stressed by wolves. Many wildlife biologists — and even the Montana Wildlife Federation, a pro-hunting conservation group — agree.

“The truth is, we have record numbers of elk in the state of Montana, including in areas with wolves,” said Nick Gevock, the federation’s conservation director. What’s more, critics of the bills say hunting methods like snares are cruel and indiscriminate.

On this highly charged issue with a complex history, the governor appears sympathetic to wolf hunters, many of whom have ties to his party. Gianforte recently signed Fielder’s two wolf bills into law.

“I think trapping is an important tool for predator control and for wildlife management,” he told the Independent Record in March. “I’m proud to be a trapper.”

But the wolf debate doesn’t seem to have much to do with science-based management. Instead, it comes down to how people view wolves across the state — and how their politics inform those views.

The rise and fall and rise of the gray wolf, briefly explained

Indigenous communities had, of course, been living with wolves for centuries before European settlers arrived.

“Traditionally, in the tribal views, when you look upon wolves, we look at them as kin, as helpers,” Letara Lebau, a resident of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, said last October during a presentation about human-carnivore coexistence. “We really look at the wolves as deserving of respect.”

Settlers and their early descendants held a vastly different view.

They saw wolves as villains that posed a threat to valuable livestock. And so in the 19th and 20th centuries, the US led a campaign to exterminate them. It was wildly effective: By the mid-20th century, only two populations of wolves remained in the lower 48 states.

In the decades that followed, we learned about the animal’s integral role in ecosystems — a fact Indigenous people already knew — causing attitudes toward the predator to shift. What started as a campaign to eradicate wolves became a campaign to save them. And in 1974, they were added to the newly minted Endangered Species Act, setting the stage for their recovery.

Twenty years later, that recovery got a huge boost: Biologists reintroduced 31 gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park (and some more into Idaho). It remains one of the most significant moments in the history of carnivore conservation in the US.

The recovery worked, and Montana was central to its success. By 2009, there were enough breeding pairs for the wolf to be delisted in Montana and in a few other regions, though the wolf remained on the federal ESA for another decade. (The Trump administration delisted it last year, much to the chagrin of environmental groups, citing a “successful recovery.”)

“The restoration of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies is arguably the most successful wildlife reintroduction in United States history,” said Gevock.

Tim Williams/Vox

It’s still not easy to stumble upon a gray wolf in Montana — there are about 1,160 of the animals across the Big Sky State, just a fraction of their historic population. Yet the number is safely above the federally mandated minimum, set at 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves.

Fielder, the state representative who sponsored the two bills that Gianforte signed and a retired wildlife biologist, says that to maintain 15 breeding pairs you need about 285 wolves, because not all packs have breeding pairs. So, in his view, 1,160 is way too many.

Critics say the anti-wolf bills hark back to the extermination campaign

The bills, in short, would make it easier to kill more wolves.

One of them, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Brown, would provide reimbursement for trapping expenses — which critics call a bounty. The Senate bill is currently making its way through the House.

“Montana’s territorial legislature first offered a wolf bounty in 1883, and the goal was to reduce the wolf population,” said Jennifer Sherry, an environmental scientist and wildlife advocate at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “Here we are over 100 years later talking again about the need for a wolf bounty to reduce the wolf population.”

Another bill, also sponsored by Brown, allows individual hunters to shoot an unlimited number of wolves and legalizes nighttime hunting using spotlights that temporarily blind the animals, with the intent of reducing the wolf population. Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

The other bills — both of which Fielder sponsored and the governor signed — extend the trapping season and allow hunters to use snares. (Montana allows for the snaring of some other animals, including bobcats.)

The reasoning that Fielder and Brown use to justify their bills is simple: Wolves in some parts of the state are eviscerating deer, elk, and moose populations. “Wildlife is suffering,” Fielder said in the hearing.

But the data tells a different story.

Elk and most other game species are doing just fine across Montana — and throughout the West

“The numbers don’t add up,” Sherry said. “Elk numbers are consistently strong across the state. Hunter success rates are consistently strong.”

In fact, the number of deer and elk killed by hunters across Montana has actually gone up overall in the past decade, according to Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department hunting estimates.

Tim Williams/Vox

“These are good times for elk hunters, as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state,” said the agency’s 2020 hunting forecast.

Moose are an exception — their numbers are trending down — but there’s no evidence that wolves are to blame. The state commissioned a 10-year study in 2013 to pinpoint a culprit.

“Despite widespread speculation that adult moose are being killed by wolves and other carnivores, the study shows that the main culprits are health related,” Tom Dickson, the editor of the parks department’s newsletter, wrote in 2019, in reference to the study.

Fielder, however, argues that the problem is most severe in western Montana — where wolves are, by far, most abundant. But again, the evidence is sparse to tie the predator to any ungulate decline.

If you zero in on the northwest, home to the highest densities of wolves, you find that deer kills by licensed hunters have hovered around 2,000 a year for more than a decade (though they were much higher if you go back to 2004), according to parks department data. And while elk harvest numbers have fluctuated, there doesn’t seem to be a clear downward trend in the last decade either.

“White-tailed deer numbers have been on an upward trend in general,” the hunting forecast says about deer in the West.

Not surprisingly, the number of moose killed by hunters in the northwest is falling, but again, that may not have much to do with wolves. For one, the population of wolves isn’t growing, at least through 2019, the most recent year for which there’s data; it’s actually about the same as it was a decade ago. Plus, there are several other factors that shape the population of game animals, including forest fires and weather.

“Fire and winter have a much more significant impact than all the predators combined,” said Diane Boyd, a renowned wolf biologist and former parks department wolf specialist in northwest Montana. Prey have other predators, too, such as bears and mountain lions.

Parks department spokesperson Greg Lemon said the agency provided information to the legislature but declined to comment on aspects of the legislation.

“We find these bills to be based on misinformation about wildlife, misinformation about the effects of predators on prey species, and a lack of understanding about the complexity of natural environments in Montana,” residents and wildlife biologists, including Boyd and 16 former parks department employees, wrote in a March 16 letter to the state legislature and governor. “These bills are not based on science.” (Fielder disputes this claim.)

So if the bills aren’t based on science, what are they based on?

That’s a more challenging question to answer. Boyd, a hunter herself, pointed to politics. Far-right conservatism has surged in the last few years, she said, emboldening lawmakers with anti-wolf views. The stance among some conservatives on issues like gun and property rights often conflict with wildlife protections, she added.

But the relationship between far-right ideology, which flourished in the US in the Trump years, and wolf conservation isn’t so clear cut. One survey from 2012 found that while hunters tend to lean Republican or independent, and support gun rights, they also highly value conservation and access to the outdoors. To say conservative values are aligned with these bills would be an oversimplification.

“We’re really not sure why this extreme anti-wolf sentiment is here,” Gevock said, adding that he believes much of it comes from far-western Montana. Both Brown and Fielder hail from Thompson Falls, a small town about two hours northwest of Missoula.

Others say the new push to kill wolves with more brutal measures is rooted in antiquated views of these predators. Some influential lawmakers simply don’t believe in the inherent value of wolves, said Mike Phillips, a retired Democratic state senator and director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, who was involved in reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone.

All four bills are likely to become law, but that doesn’t mean Montana’s wolves are headed off a cliff

Gianforte has already signed two of the wolf bills, another is headed to his desk, and the fourth is still going through the legislature. Gevock says all four bills are likely to become law, whether or not Gianforte puts his signature on them.

“The governor will carefully consider any bill that the legislature sends to his desk,” Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement to Vox.

But as Gevock and others point out, that doesn’t necessarily mean wolves are imperiled across the state, even if their numbers fall. As history has demonstrated, wolves are highly resilient animals.

“Wolves are a very elastic species, meaning they can take some pretty extreme measures and survive,” Gevock said. “Yes, we will kill more wolves, but they can bounce back quickly. They can take a pretty aggressive hunt.”

What’s harder to stomach, at least for Phillips, is what he calls a “disregard for life.”

“This is a moment defined by people of authority who don’t value large carnivores much at all,” Phillips said. “Why would we ever sanction needless killing?”

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