Three of Montana’s conservation groups recently sponsored a showing of the new Greenfire documentary “Lords of Nature” at the Roxy, followed by a two-hour panel discussion that included Montana’s Wolf Coordinator, Carolyn Sime. The evening served to put in perspective the current controversy over the wolf hunt in Montana and Idaho, which was the subject of a court hearing just a few days earlier.
As the Montana Director for the Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiffs in that suit, it seems to me that this element of perspective is sorely lacking from Montana’s plans to manage wolves, though I certainly appreciated the recent comments from Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Commissioner Ron Moody in NewWest. While I am doing my best to keep an open mind on this subject, and appreciate the role sportsmen continue to play in wildlife conservation, I am puzzled by the seeming unwillingness of Montana to look to Minnesota for guidance on this critical issue.
Minnesota is about half the size of Montana, with a population of over 5 million people, and currently has three times as many wolves. It has almost as many hunters as our entire population (half a million), and derives 3.6 times as much income from livestock as we do. The North Star state also has a lot more experience dealing with wolves than we do, as their wolves were never exterminated. The contrast in attitudes between Minnesota’s hunters, ranchers, and wolf managers and our own is striking. Their ranchers have learned to appreciate and live with wolves, viewing them as just one of many obstacles to living off the land and taking all necessary steps to minimize depredation. Minnesota hunters recognize that wolves make elk and deer more difficult to find, but respond by simply becoming “better hunters.”
In general, Minnesotans actually seem pleased to live in a state where the top predator still roams free, making Montana and Idaho wolf haters sound like scared, ignorant city-slickers by comparison. Why do so many people that live around here want to turn this beautiful, wild landscape into something between a zoo and a game farm, with each animal in its place? I may not have been born here, but at least I am man enough to embrace the wildness of Montana (along with many of my hunter friends, by the way), and bold enough to imagine an even wilder landscape in a world that is simply becoming too tame everywhere else.
Minnesota’s wolf managers are committed to a 5-year public outreach process once their wolves are de-listed by the feds to determine if and how to conduct a wolf hunt. Imagine that! When Carolyn Sime was asked why Montana and Idaho are in such a rush to kill wolves, with the whole point of de-listing seemingly to get on with the hunt, her feeble response was that the landscape is different here. While that may certainly be true of our political landscape, our larger, less populated natural landscape would seem to undercut her point. In court, Montana emphasized that tolerance and acceptance of wolves was a crucial element of wolf management. But when Sime was asked what portion of her budget was devoted to public education and outreach, her response was that there seemed to be a lot of opinion in the question! This may explain why so many of our hunters are convinced that wolves are decimating elk populations, while the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recently revealed that populations are stable.
There are legitimate concerns over whether Montana can have a controlled hunt in an environment of misinformation and irrational animosity toward wolves. Assuming that trophy killing of a recovering species is justified in the first place, our wildlife managers must lay the proper groundwork for such a hunt. That includes changing prevailing attitudes so that wolves are respected for their critical role in our shared natural environment. Did you know that without wolves and cougars, trout streams lose the streamside vegetation they need to prosper?
Montana also emphasized in court that “all species fit together”, the wolf was an “integral part” of the ecosystem, and thus wildlife management must include them. If that is true, how can Montana pretend to manage wolves in an integrated wildlife approach while simultaneously excluding one of their principal prey species, the bison? If we were truly interested in taking an ecosystem approach to managing wolves, we would allow bison to re-colonize public wildlands up and down the front-range and into eastern Montana, which in turn would reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock. And according to recent scientific studies by independent experts, wild bison present almost no risk whatsoever of transmitting brucellosis to livestock. So this kind of balanced wildlife management approach is timely.
Montana seemingly has a long way to go before we are ready to manage wolves like grown-ups. We could start by listening to our elders in Minnesota.