By Derek GoldmanNorthern Rockies Field Representative
Endangered Species Coalition
Wolf-killing Bill Defeated in the Montana Legislature
This week the Montana House of Representatives reversed course once again and finally defeated a bill that would that have led to the death of hundreds of wolves. The bill failed a final vote, after first passing the Montana Senate, then dying in the House, then getting resurrected in the House.
The Montana Wolf Control Act (SB 414), sponsored by Senator Chas Vincent (R-Libby) would have prohibited Montana game wardens from investigating wolves illegally killed in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Senate Bill 414 would have also instructed Montana’s attorney general to sue the U.S. government for alleged “economic losses” caused by wolves. This, in spite of the fact that studies show that wolf-related tourism contributes about 35 million dollars annually to the economies in communities around Yellowstone National Park. Most egregiously, SB 414 would have allowed wolves to be shot on private land, anytime, even without a hunting license. The Montana Wolf Control Act would have undermined Montana’s wolf management plan, which had been thoughtfully derived in 2003 from an extensive, open public process that included Montana sportsmen, conservation groups, ranchers and others.
While the Endangered Species Coalition reluctantly recognizes that hunting will eventually be a regular part of wolf management in the mountain West, Senate Bill 414 was not the kind of hunting we envisioned. The bill went so far that it even violated the central tenets of the sportsman’s own North American Model of Wildlife Conservation that requires licensed, well-regulated hunting with seasons, harvest limits and penalties, as well as the use of science and monitoring to ensure that wildlife resources are held in the public trust for future generations. Although we were not surprised that certain anti-predator, trophy hunting organizations supported this bill, the Montana Wolf Control Act should have been an affront to all ethical sportsmen and sportswomen.
Inside and out of Montana’s legislative session, wolves have clearly become everyone’s favorite scapegoat. Wild accusations of the “decimation” of elk are just that. In fact, with the exception of a few herds, elk are doing quite well. Statewide elk population numbers are UP 60 percent since wolves were reintroduced in 1995, according to data compiled by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Furthermore, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks most recent elk counts, 80 percent of hunting districts in Montana (and even 76 percent of those districts within wolf regions) are at or above elk population objectives. Elk hunter success is also as high as ever.
Yes, wolves occasionally kill livestock, but cattle and sheep lost to wolves is a small fraction of livestock lost overall—domestic dogs, disease and winter storms kill many times more livestock than wolves do.
The return of the gray wolf to the West is a remarkable wildlife restoration achievement and an Endangered Species Act success story. After Congress made the unprecedented move last week to remove Endangered Species protections for wolves in the northern Rockies, the responsibility for the future of wolves now falls to the states in the region. I hope the states undertake this task soberly, and with a serious commitment to ensure that wolves are sustainably managed so that future generations of Westerners can continue to hear the howl of wolves in the wild. The defeat of the Montana Wolf Control Act by the Legislature was a step in the right direction.