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Wolf Management

Wolf Management ... has nothing to do with wolves

Gray WolfGray Wolves

“Wolves and wolf management have nothing to do with wolves,” says Ed Bangs, Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “I think the folks who didn’t like them still don’t like them, and the folks who did like them still do. Wolves are mainly a symbolic issue that relates to core human values … I think the only reason wolf reintroduction finally happened was that people with different values moved to Montana and diluted the strong agricultural influence. Plus, the economy changed from straight agriculture and natural resource consumption to areas such as tourism. …I think in time the debate will get less shrill because living with ‘real’ wolves does moderate the strong and highly polarized, all-bad or all-good opinions.”

Bringing Back the Pack

Gray wolf populations were extirpated from the western U.S. by the 1930s, at the hands of the government agents, people who shot wolves to earn the government-paid bounty, and ranchers attempting to protect livestock—some of whose descendants continue to ranch the same lands today. In later decades, wolves from Canada occasionally walked south into Montana and Idaho, but they failed to survive long enough to reproduce.

The rise of environmentalism and specifically the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 created a new atmosphere for wolf advocacy. Organizations including Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation spearheaded a successful effort to have wolves listed as “endangered” under the ESA’s provisions. Not only were bounty programs discontinued, but also it became illegal to kill wolves. In addition, the federal government became obligated to implement a plan for the recovery of the wolf population.

In the early 1980s, wolves from Canada began to get a pawhold in northwest Montana, and by 1995, there were six packs in that region. A proposal emerged to boost wolf recovery by actively restoring wolves to other suitable areas in the Northern Rockies. Objections arose from livestock producers, hunters worried about the impact of wolves on game populations, and other concerned people. Wolf proponents in the region and elsewhere in the country—and indeed around the world—advocated for the reintroduction.

Eventually, the US Congress held hearings and ultimately ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. In 1995 and 1996, as part of its wolf recovery plan, USFWS trapped 66 wolves in southwestern Canada and transplanted them to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Oblivious to the controversy, the wolves proceeded to do spectacularly well, reproducing and expanding their range faster than any of the experts predicted.

Concerns About Livestock Predation

One major objection to the reintroduction was that wolves – described as highly efficient predators by friends and foes alike – would devastate cattle and sheep herds. To help address this concern, Defenders of Wildlife launched a program to compensate livestock producers when wolves preyed on their stock, which by the end of 2002 had paid out more than $270,000 to ranchers in the Northern Rockies.

The predation must be confirmed by the federal Wildlife Services agency before Defenders will pay compensation. Some ranchers have complained about incidents when they’ve know for certain that wolves took their stock but Wildlife Services was unable to verify that wolves were the culprits – leaving the ranchers to cope with the loss.

Depredations on livestock have been lower than predicted when the wolf reintroduction was first proposed, reports USFWS – in 2002, 52 cattle, 99 sheep, nine dogs, and five llamas were confirmed lost to wolves. About 23 of 80 known wolf packs were involved in depredations. In those areas of Montana where Yellowstone wolves have dispersed, seven of 10 known wolf packs were involved in livestock depredation in 2002, and confirmed losses included 10 cattle and 71 sheep killed. Many wolves have been killed by USFWS when it has been impossible to deter them from further predation.

And while some livestock producers are adamantly opposed to the wolves, some of their rancher neighbors may accept wolves as part of the natural landscape.

In 2001 and 2002, a study was conducted of rancher and public attitudes toward the concept of compensating ranchers for livestock predation. The study was funded by six federal agencies, four state agencies, five private foundations, and Defenders of Wildlife – all of which want to know whether compensation actually increases ranchers’ tolerance for wolves. Conducted by the University of Montana, the research included mail surveys of ranching communities and the general public as well as in-depth personal interviews with 60 ranchers. The committee overseeing design of the study included a number of livestock producers.

Preliminary results indicate that ranchers find compensation to be an important tool but not the ultimate answer to their concerns about wolves proliferating in the region. The final report is available from the Predator Compensation Research Project .

“Wolf reintroduction has had positive economic impacts, too”

Excerpts from a column published in the Bozeman Chronicle, 1/26/03, by Ken Sinay, director of the Yellowstone Safari Company, which has led wildlife tours in the region for 12 years …

“The 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the greater Yellowstone area has generated enormous controversy. The Montana Stockgrowers Association recently began weighing in with radio ads suggesting the cattle industry is severely impacted by the presence of these predators. … I'd like to offer a perspective that's received far less consideration: the positive economic benefit wolves have for our region. …

“I can guarantee that any morning will find people in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley focused on wolves … The restoration of the wolf to the greater Yellowstone region has been a boon to all regional tourism operators and peripheral businesses. Services such as ours obviously benefit, but not all tourists use guides. All tourists must, however, have a place to sleep, eat and shop. Shopping is the number one activity tourists participate in and, based on inventory in regional gift shops, they buy lots of wolf icons.

“I also guide elk hunters in wolf country for a regional outfitter. As usual, wolves generate controversy around the dinner table, but I've heard numerous hunters say it was a neat experience to hear or see wolves. Many look forward to the day when delisting will allow them to harvest a wolf as a trophy animal. …

“I can only hope that everyone will respect the wildland resources which are uniquely experienced in our area, so rare in the rest of the world, and which provide the economic foundation in which Yellowstone Safari Company and the entire tourism industry are investing.”

The Role of ‘Outsiders’

Although many Americans throughout the country supported reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies, many people in this region complained that the reintroduction was an undue interference in their lives by outsiders. Nonprofit organizations (NGOs) based outside the region spent considerable time and funds advocating for reintroduction and are still very active.

Many Westerners objected to wolf reintroduction in part because they felt it reflected the imposition of federal will on individual states. ABC’s Peter Jennings used the wolf reintroduction in Idaho as a vehicle to explore the federal-state relationship in a television special that originally aired in September 2002.

As Jennings laid out in the program’s introduction, “To tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park, the gray wolf is a magnificent sight — a noble animal whose successful reintroduction in the last decade represents the nation's commitment to preserving its natural heritage. But to ranchers in central Idaho, the wolf is a very different animal: a vicious predator that has been forced on them by the federal government and environmentalists living in big cities hundreds of miles away. …

“The ranchers say the wolves, whose numbers have grown nearly tenfold in central Idaho since their reintroduction seven years ago, prey on their livestock and threaten a way of life that has sustained their families for generations. The Republican politicians who represent them in Congress have denounced the wolf program as part of a federal ‘war on the West’ that is also challenging long-held logging and mining rights on federal lands. The conflict raises questions about Americans' relationship to the land they live on — especially the great spaces of the West — and to the government they elect to rule them.”

Although the program was not about wolf reintroduction per se—but instead used the wolves as a means of exploring federal-state relations—it refueled the wolf controversy, with wolf proponents saying it misrepresented the facts about the reintroduction effort.

Road to Recovery

The Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population occupies three recovery areas: Northwest Montana, Greater Yellowstone, and Central Idaho.

The Northwest Montana area includes northwest Montana and the northern Idaho panhandle. Wolves in these locations were classified as endangered, the most protected classification under the ESA, until April 1, 2003, when they were reclassified as threatened, which allows more flexible management. Two measures that are allowed under threatened status (but not under endangered status) are the use of nonlethal munitions to haze wolves away form livestock and the ability for livestock owners to legally kill a wolf caught in the act of attacking livestock.

The Greater Yellowstone recovery area includes Wyoming and adjacent parts of Idaho and Montana. The Central Idaho recovery area includes central Idaho and adjacent parts of southwest Montana. Wolves in these locations are classified as “nonessential experimental populations,” so their management is more flexible than it would be for endangered species.

The April 1 reclassification of the Northwest Montana population will not affect management of the wolves in the other two recovery areas, nor will it affect the process of eventually removing all of the Northern Rockies wolves from federal protection. (While Defenders of Wildlife announced its intention to sue FWS over the reclassification, Steve Pilcher of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said, “We interpret [the reclassification] as a move in the right direction. Our goal is to put ranchers in a position where they can defend their property.”)

When the wolves achieve biological recovery, they can be “delisted,” and their management will move from federal to state jurisdiction. What is “recovery”? USFWS believes that 30 breeding pairs of wolves, with an equitable distribution among the three states for three successive years, constitutes a recovered wolf population – and that criterion was met at the end of 2002.

The other major delisting criterion is that the states must adopt wolf management plans that will reasonably assure that the wolf will not become threatened or endangered again. Because the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves will be delisted as a single entity, the state plans for Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho will be evaluated together. If USFWS determines that the state plans are adequate, the agency will officially propose delisting, launching a new round of public and professional review and comment before a final decision is reached. After delisting, the ESA requires at least five years of federal oversight.

Wolf Management Times Three

Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana authorities have established an agreement for coordination in their wolf management efforts. Separately, each state has moved forward with its wolf management plan. Idaho has adopted a plan and is now developing the operational details. Wyoming has drafted a plan, which is still under revision so it will be acceptable to USFWS. There has been considerable public controversy in both states over these plans.

In April 2000, Montana launched its planning for delisting when then-Governor Marc Racicot appointed a Wolf Management Advisory Council, including conservationists, hunters, landowners, livestock producers, outfitters, educators, and others. This group made a report to newly elected Governor Judy Martz in 2001, and Governor Martz directed Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) to use the report to frame a wolf management plan. Governor Martz reappointed the Council in January 2003 and asked them to serve for another two years.

FWP released the "Montana Wolf Conservation and Management Planning Document" in January 2002. Under the requirements of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, FWP opened a "scoping" period on this preliminary plan, holding community work sessions and receiving comments by postal mail and e-mail. FWP collected some 6,800 comments on all aspects of wolf management, from 70 percent of Montana’s counties, 49 states, and eight foreign countries.

Based on those comments and more input from the Wolf Management Advisory Council, FWP issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement in March 2003, featuring five management alternatives that range from little to no management of wolves to aggressive management.

The Preferred Alternative

FWP’s preferred alternative to wolf management follows the guidance and direction of the Wolf Advisory Council. FWP seeks to manage wolves similarly to how the agency manages black bears and mountain lions, based on how many wolves there are, where they are in the state, and how well they’re accepted by the public.

The preferred alternative sets a benchmark of 15 breeding pairs of wolves in Montana, with more wolves allowed depending on human-wolf conflicts, livestock-wolf conflicts, and the impact of wolf predation on elk and other game animals.

Reflecting the concerns of hunters about the impact of wolves on game, Jean Johnson, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said that wolves are having a serious effect on hunting opportunities and “15 pairs is more than we need.” Wolves’ impact on elk populations has been the subject of contention since reintroduction was first proposed, with some hunters and outfitters claiming that wolves have decimated elk populations. Biologists aren’t so sure, however, and studies are ongoing to determine how elk populations fare in the presence of wolves, drought, and other factors.

Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf planning coordinator, told the Daily InterLake that the preferred alternative strikes a balance between all the public sentiments. “It allows the agency flexibility to meet those concerns," she said. "It meets our legal requirements, it allows us to resolve conflicts at a local level, it ensures human safety, and it allows the gray wolf to find its place among other wildlife we have in this state."

At a March 2003 public meeting in Billings, an environmental studies student at Montana State University, who is the daughter of a rancher, told the Billings Gazette, “I disagree with hunting and trapping the wolf, but I do agree with ranchers being able to protect their property.”

A retired rancher said, “I feel that any time wolves go beyond federal land, the farmer and rancher should have the right to shoot or trap.” A Laurel man said he was pleased to be able to comment. “We're asking questions and getting answers. This is the way to do it. The feds just come in with a mandate, drop it all on the states and then leave."

These comments illustrate the depth of feelings aroused by the wolf management issue.

The Tab for Wolf Recovery

“Wolf recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains from 1973 through 2002 cost about $15,200,000 (with no adjustments for inflation). If recovery continues at the current rate and management costs remain within predictions, wolf delisting should be completed in 2004 at an additional cost to taxpayers of $1,400,000 annually for 2003 and 2004. The total cost for the restoration, management, recovery, and delisting of wolves between 1973 and late 2004 should be about $18,000,000.”—Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery 2002 Annual Report

FWP estimates that putting its preferred alternative management plan into operation will cost about $800,000 annually. – Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks

The Future of Wolves in Montana

One facet of wolf recolonization and reintroduction is the dozens of large and small studies that have been conducted on their dispersal, reproduction, social interactions, and impact on game populations and other predators (for example, the coyote population in Yellowstone National Park has been substantially reduced by the wolves). The findings will help managers better understand how to manage wolves on the landscape.

Hank Fischer, a central figure in wolf issues for 25 years and originator of Defenders’ compensation program, told UPI Science News, "The future of wolf restoration has a lot more to do with state governments. Environmentalists are going to have to [work more] with states and private landowners … We have to wave good-bye to the ESA protections for wolves and shift into a different game. They don't use the ESA to increase elk populations, and they are quite successful at it … I think it's likely we're going to have wolves up and down the Rockies in 20 to 25 years, but a lot will depend on how successful we are at making them welcome."


  • Interview (email) with Ed Bangs, US Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nez Perce Tribe, National Park Service, and USDA Wildlife Services. 2003. Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery 2002 Annual Report . T. Meier, ed. USFWS, Ecological Services, Helena, Montana. Status, Rocky Mountain wolf population, 1/1/02 to 12/31/02.
  • ABC New website.
  • “Wolf reintroduction has had positive economic impacts, too” by Ken Sinay, Yellowstone Safari Company, Bozeman Chronicle, 1/26/03.
  • “Montanans disagree about wolf management,” by Sonja Lee, Great Falls Tribune, 3/19/03.
  • Wolves get new status,” by Jim Mann, The Daily Inter Lake, 3/19/03
  • “FWP compiles varied views of wolf future” by John Fitzgerald, Billings Gazette, 3/28/03
  • “Wolf plan wins qualified praise,” Associated Press, 3/13/03.
  • “Welcoming back the wolves,” by Dan Whipple, UPI Science News, 4/4/2003.

Citizen Comments

A sampler of citizen comments made during June 2003 at public meetings and in letters to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, concerning Montana's wolf management plan:

"Agriculture represents a major portion of Garfield County's economic stability. Wolves have historically been detrimental to animal agriculture." —Jordan

"Nobody ever opposed wolf more than me, but they're here." —Glasgow

"Answer to funding problem. Excise tax on rifles/ammo. Excise tax on binoculars, spotting scopes, boots, clothes to watch wolves." —Billings

"The discussion was based purely on emotions. That is not the right way to handle this problem, but education is."—Billings

"Ranchers need to be able to protect their livestock on their own private lands. Public wild lands exist to promote public wildlife, not domestic livestock."—Boulder

"The mental stress upon a rancher should be considered."—Fishtail

"I understand the importance of protecting wolves in national parks, wilderness areas, and game refuges. Once healthy populations are established there, they are bound to roam ever-increasing areas, and sooner or later we will see them on the prairies of eastern Montana, where I operate a cattle ranch."—Winnett

"It does not do any good to report [livestock loss] to crooked US damage control people."—Red Lodge

"Wolf is a check and balance on ecosystem. Wolves eat elk in Yellowstone that may starve."—Great Falls

"Federal government should pay all expenses to the state of Montana for the management of the wolves and federal government should reimburse the citizens of Montana for the wildlife that is consumed by the wolf reintroduction."—Great Falls

"Is there a way to use the science of wolf behavior to better target problem animals and open up a new component to outfitter hunting?" mdash;Bozeman

"I like Wyoming's proposal. Any wolf outside of National parks or wilderness will be treated as a predator."—Bozeman

"Are wolf counts accurate?"—Butte

"Manage them according to the problems they create—they will go to areas where they are not being harassed and there is a prey base." mdash;Dillon

"I am concerned that the legislature will take over wolf mgmt from FWP."—Ennis

"MT Legislature has done well in protecting Montana's interests in managing wolves."—Ennis

"Hunting won't control wolves, only way is through aerial hunting by agencies."—Gardiner

"Wolves have been good for Montana. They promote a healthy big game population, create a more balanced ecology, have generated $20 million in wolf-related tourism for Yellowstone National Park and surrounding communities, and are responsible for less than 1% of all livestock losses." mdash;Austin

"My biggest concern is that rural Montanans, the majority of which oppose wolf populations on their private and leased lands, are being required to pay the entire price, in money and in cost to lifestyle, while the majority of pro-wolf are out of state and country, people who pay nothing." mdash;Bozeman

"We believe that the presence of wolves in our state enhances the quality of life here and is a vital part of what makes this a wonderful place to life."—Clancy

"I have personally observed on several occasions packs of 4-6 chasing deer east of Cooke City 25 miles … Ranchers will take matters in their own hands and will now shoot wolves on sight. Fine with me."—Cooke City

"I find it truly appalling and inhumane that $800,000 is taken away from families with little food, little means of keeping warm, elderly buying medicine, education of our children, and a growing tax bill for the average American to support 183 wolves."—Helena

"I am an avid hunter and outdoors person and stro"Hunting is not realistic because they are difficult to hunt in the sense elk and deer are hunted."—Missoula

"More than willing to share some of our wolves with the rest of the country."—Missoula

"The EIS fails to admit that wolves will significantly reduce elk and deer populations … This failure casts doubts on the credibility of other conclusions or information presented."—Missoula

"Guard against numbers getting too low or we get federal control." mdash;Avon

"The ranching industry is being given too much consideration—livestock losses—within limits are an acceptable price to pay for a healthy predator population."—Anaconda

"Uncomfortable with compensating livestock owners for depredations, they are not compensated for deaths caused by other predators. Should be linked to owners who employ proper husbandry practices."—Hamilto

"I am concerned about the number of wolves that are already here … There are dozens of them near our homes at this time."—Hall

"Wolves replace hunters. Which in turn replaces gun owners." mdash;Rexford/p>

"Key areas of wolf habitat secured from inordinate human disturbance during denning season."—Rexford

"Business/group insurance to pay for livestock losses … Ranchers pay just like other businesses."—Kalispell

"Must get wolf de-listed so we can move on."—Kalispell

"What if we get a mutated strain of distemper and that wipes them out?"—Whitefish

"Since wolves kill usually the sick and old, this will lead to a healthier ungulate population."—Swan Lake

"Compensation for losses to livestock must not only cover death losses but also the loss of weaning weights and the lower pregnancy rates created by the wolves' presence."—Polson

"The first option should be to ensure that the rancher is practicing sound animal husbandry and not drawing wolves in with bone yards or improperly tended stock."—Columbia Falls

"Habitat is the most important factor for the health and recovery of all wildlife."—Eureka

"Put wolves evenly throughout the state, as there are as many deer in eastern Montana as western, require all 50 states to have at least 10 breeding pair."—Bigfork

"To go along with any of the [state management] proposals would be going against all of the people who pay taxes, buy sporting equipment, and purchase hunting & fishing licenses."—Bigfork

This vignette was completed in April 2003.