Sportsmen Taking Charge of Predator Problems
What Will It Take To Fix A Very Broken Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
The past decade could become known as the darkest years for wildlife management in the State of Montana. Most sportsmen and true wildlife lovers who have lived their entire lives in Big Sky Country have surely seen the abundance of elk, moose, deer and other big game periodically rise and fall for a year or two, then level out some until the next period of population fluctuation. However, each time those periods hit a smooth stretch, the game numbers had tended to increase since the last bit of rough road.
The rebuilding of Montana’s big game herds, from their low ebbs in the early 1900’s to true abundance, took 75 to 80 years. It also took establishing the agency now known as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to oversee the management practices which continually worked to increase the state’s wildlife resources and to allow sportsmen to harvest game for the family table. These sportsmen have historically been the primary source of funding for the agency, mostly through the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses.
A very dark cloud has spread across much of Montana over the past 10 to 15 years. In western Montana, big game population have been in serious decline and there has not been any period of growth or recovery during that time. In many areas along the Bitterroot Mountains, in and around Yellowstone National Park, even in the famed Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and just about anywhere else in the Rocky Mountains and other mountain chains along the western side of Montana elk herds are down 70- to 80-percent, deer populations are barely half of what they were 10 to 12 years ago and the moose have totally been lost in many areas where they once thrived.
What’s happening? Are these dramatic declines in game populations due to man? Well, in a way, yes.
The problem began in 1995 with the release of wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Area. Under the auspices of “restoring a missing species” in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took it upon themselves to transplant a super-sized non-native Canadian wolf subspecies into the region – since the agency claimed it could not find where any of the smaller native wolf still existed, even though residents of the region claimed there were remaining small pockets of what they referred to as the “timber wolf”. What USFWS released into Wyoming, Idaho and Montana was a wolf that could weigh a third more than the native wolf which commonly ran in packs 3 or 4 times the size of native wolf packs and wolves that in their true native habitat in north-central Alberta covered a range three times that as the wolf which inhabited the Greater Yellowstone Area.
As the number of wolves grew from the original transplants of 14 wolves in 1995 and 17 wolves in 1996, to 100, then 200 and then 500, to now as many as 3,000 or more, the game animals that make up the prey base cannot handle the pressure of such an aggressive predator. Many wildlife savvy outdoorsmen and sportsmen-based organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, now realize that each and every one of those wolves, given the opportunity, will kill around 50 big game animals annually. Putting an ever bigger dent in the damage to these herds is the fact that wolves are now killing 90 or more percent of the spring calf and fawn crop. There is no new generation recruitment and the average age of surviving game is becoming very geriatric. Before the wolf transplants, the northern Yellowstone elk herd numbered right at 19,000 with an average age of 5 years. The remaining 4,000 today are now at an average age of 9 years.
What has angered Montana sportsmen more than anything else has been the denial of such losses by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The agency has repeatedly tried to shift blame on poor habitat and forage…a hard winter 15 or so years ago…global warming…and human development of winter range…among other things. Only in the past couple of years has the agency targeted in on the real problem – a glut of predators. The state has long had a high population of black bears, grizzlies and mountain lions. Still, big game populations continued to grow – until the introduction of a bigger, more aggressive and wider ranging non-indigenous wolf.
MT FWP has long had a close working relationship with the Montana Wildlife Federation. The agency’s very evident shift from managing for more huntable numbers of elk, moose and deer to clearly managing for more predators can likely be linked to their relationship with that organization.
Montana Wildlife Federation is a state chapter of the National Wildlife Federation, which has long supported dramatically increasing the number of major predators on the landscape and the spread of those predators into other regions of the United States. The National Wildlife Federation is also a collaborator of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative which looks to largely reduce or eliminate the human role as hunters to manage big game populations by replacing people with predators. Both Montana Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation claim to support the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which is primarily based on human hunters harvesting surplus game. But are they really, or is that just a claim to attract more members? That model has relied on the stringent control of predators, which definitely goes against the NWF’s goal of seeing more grizzlies and wolves in this country.
Until a great amount of pressure was put on MT FWP to withdraw, that agency was also listed as a Y2Y collaborator. To many Montana sportsmen the writing is on the wall. “Their” wildlife agency has sold them out and is in bed with the same radical environmental groups that want to put an end to hunting.
Attend any FWP Commission meeting or any regional FWP meeting and it does not take long to feel the animosity between the sportsmen in the room and the agency commissioners or state wildlife managers present. It’s no wonder that at any such meeting these days, there are armed conservation officers in the room. Those who have funded FWP and who have put their trust in the agency making wise management decisions are now realizing that the agency is too broken to function properly. Tens of thousands of impacted sportsmen and other residents are now calling for a complete overhaul of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Republican 2012 gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill says if elected he would work with a new Fish and Wildlife Commission, that he would make it a priority for the legislature to pass needed statutory changes within the first two weeks of the 2013 session so we can immediately cut down the predator numbers.
He claims, “We will immediately change the culture at the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and on the FWP Commission. We will start listening and partnering with landowners and counties to listen and address their concerns and needs. Restoring the trust and cooperation between sportsmen and landowners will be the top priority of the new leadership.”
Hill also points out, “We will hold the FWP leaders accountable with a newly shared commitment to conservation, sportsmanship, cooperation, respect for private property and enjoyment of our hunting and fishing heritage.”
A growing number of Montana residents feel that FWP has gotten away from its core mission when it was established as Montana Fish and Game back in 1901. It irritates many fishing and hunting license buyers that “their” funding is being used to finance parks and other non-hunting and non-fishing activities, and not wholly spent on fish and game management. Is it time for “Parks” to be moved to another state department? One individual who thinks so is Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
He states, “All functions that are not essential to hunting and fishing need to be spun off to other executive branch departments, such as DNRC, including functions like: Watchable wildlife, management of species of interest, parks, boating, snowmobile and ATV enforcement, and EVERYTHING ELSE that is not necessary to a core mission of hunting and fishing and fostering of species FOR hunting and fishing. Along with that, the name of the agency needs to be returned to “Fish and Game” to remind the employees of their proper mission. ”
Montana State Senator Greg Hinkle (R-Thompson Falls) shares a similar opinion, “The problems are due to many in management who do not put game species first. FWP has become an agency that is ‘managing’ everything from elk to mice.”
Hinkle goes on to point out that Fish, Wildlife and Parks is working hand in hand with those who are working against the sportsman. FWP’s augmentation of the grizzly bear into the Cabinet/Yaak mountains is a good example. He shares that the agency translocates the bears into an area and then federal agencies restricts access…using hunting license money to deny hunters access is what it all boils down to. He says that FWP’s “partnership” with the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative is another example.
Gary Marbut goes on to share his feeling that, “The members of the FWP Commission need to be elected by district, as are the members of the Public Service Commission, not appointed by the Governor.”
Current Governor Brian Schweitzer and the governor appointed Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission have long been suspected of collaborating with a number of radical environmental groups, many of which are extremely anti-hunting. That would account for the Y2Y connection. FWP Commission Chairman Bob Ream has been associated with the Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Project since the very start, and actually headed the team which wrote the Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Plan. Several other commissioners have strong ties with the Montana Wildlife Federation. So, it should not come as any surprise that when predator issues come up with the commission, their findings most always favor the wishes of that state chapter of the National Wildlife Federation rather than the sportsmen of Montana.
The Commission’s adoption of new changes for the 2012-2013 wolf season stand as a great example.
At the commission meeting in May, several hundred sportsmen and concerned residents were on hand to share their feelings about the upcoming wolf season. The majority of those commenting demanded that more aggressive efforts be employed to take control of the damage wolves were dealing big game populations. Hunters wanted to be able to shoot more than one wolf, to be able to buy an additional tag or tags if they were successful…without the five day waiting period before they could use that license and they wanted electronic calls legalized. They also wanted trapping and snaring of wolves to be allowed. Then, at regional meetings hundreds more sportsmen showed up, calling for the same.
What the commission adopted largely ignores what they were told by the Montana residents they are supposed to serve. The commission did adopt a three wolf limit. However, only one can be taken by hunting – and two by trapping. Or, the trapper can take three wolves. While a large percentage of the trappers wanted to use more effective snares, the commission ruled them illegal. And even though the topic of electronic calls was a big part of the discussion at each of the wolf season meetings, the 2012 Montana Wolf Hunting and Trapping Regulations still proclaim that such callers are illegal.
It is going to take an entirely new governor with far more integrity and backbone, plus an entirely new FWP Commission and some major reorganization at Fish, Wildlife and Parks before the wolf population is adequately reduced to allow our wildlife resources to recover. Montana gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill’s plan is to treat the wolf as a predator in most all of the eastern half of the state, allowing them to be shot on sight 365 days a year – plus calls for much more aggressive management in western Montana. Steve Bullock has yet to come up with a plan or for that matter, an opinion.
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