By M. Jeff Hagener, Director FWP
Fewer than 10 years after wolves from Canada were placed in Yellowstone National Park, 153 wolves were making a living in Montana where the overall population had already grown beyond federal recovery goals.
That year, 2004, a Montana advisory council had its work—the state's first Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan—approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The USFWS made no bones about the plan's quality.
"It's a class act," federal officials said.
A critic countered, "The Montana plan is festooned with enough ribbons and bows to make it appear reasonable, but when you tear off the fancy wrapping and look inside, it opens up a Pandora's box of troubles for wolves."
And back and forth it still goes.
Meanwhile, in 2011, the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains was removed from the federal endangered species list. Montana's wildlife managers were then able to fully use the state's science-based plan to conserve and manage wolves as a native species that's here to stay.
The job's never been simple. Consider recent headlines like this one from Bloomberg.com: "Murder of Yellowstone Wolves Threatens Area Renaissance."
Yellowstone and Glacier national parks are positioned on Montana's southwestern and northwestern borders. They were essentially incubators for wolf recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains, and remain a kind of protected refuge for wolves in the West.
Wolves were placed in YNP and in neighboring Idaho to repopulate the West and to eventually be managed by the states they would come to inhabit. Wolves introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, for instance, colonized Montana by migrating north—and wolves that began to naturally migrate from Canada to Glacier National Park in the 1980s wandered farther south into Montana. Wolves from central Idaho introductions also populated western Montana.
In short, most Montana wolves—more than 600 today—are the progeny of wolves that migrated out of our national parks and Idaho wilderness areas.
Similar to other migratory wildlife—like elk, deer and bison—wolves that inhabit YNP pay no mind to boundaries. They can depart Yellowstone for any number of reasons, one of which is to travel from one place to another to join packs or form new packs. The grass may appear greener, so to speak, in Montana.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks exists to conserve and manage Montana's wildlife. Wildlife management often means hunting and exercising some means of wildlife population control to maintain a balance among an array of ecological factors—and with an eye toward social tolerances.
It's a challenge to get that right season after season but our wolf specialists and wildlife managers are out there working to do just that day after day.
They collar and track wolves. They use hand-held radios, trail cams and reports submitted on the Internet by a vigilant public. They monitor den sites and traps. Before a trapped animal is released, wolf specialists take tissue samples, check for disease, and determine the size and sex of the animal. They work with landowners and they approach every depredation as a problem to resolve and in an attempt to prevent from happening again.
About 50 wolves in Montana are now equipped with radio collars to track movements, obtain counts, study reproduction rates, predator-prey relationships and to help wildlife managers learn more about how, where, and why mortalities occur.
Some of Montana's collared wolves are harvested by hunters or trappers and others die or are killed by other means—including those that migrate from YNP.
The information FWP receives from collared animals is invaluable and is always included in FWP's overall ecological investigations. Above and below the din, FWP will keep working to ensure that wolves roam this state in balance with all of Montana's wild, natural, and domestic resources.
Montana has been solely managing the state's wolves since they were delisted in 2011, including successfully administering three hunting seasons. Contrary to some critics of state management, Montana's wolf population continues to thrive well above state and federal recovery thresholds. More important, wolves are now an accepted part of Montana's rich wildlife heritage.
Through it all, Montana has also recognized the importance of national park wolves by creating specific harvest quotas near the parks. As for Yellowstone wolves, they'll continue to contribute ecologically to the system that has been responding to their presence for nearly 20 years.