Montana is Selling Out Its Wildlife

Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

This year has proven deadly for many of Montana’s wildlife species. From outrageously regressive rules governing gray wolf management to opening numerous Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) to livestock operations free of charge, the priorities of Montana’s decision makers have been on full display. Wildlife are also being targeted directly through more lenient trapping rules and expanded elk shoulder seasons–a season outside of the five-week general firearm and archery season which typically focuses on antlerless elk on private land. The common thread in these decisions is that they are contrary to what the majority of the public wants, and that they prioritize the values and demands of the few (i.e., deep-pocketed industry groups) over sound ecosystem stewardship and wildlife management.

The August 20th Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting laid bare the biases of many of the newly appointed commissioners. Pat Tabor (an outfitter and founder of Swan Mountain Outfitters), Brian Cebull (board member of the Montana Chapter of Safari Club International), and Lesley Robinson (a former running mate of Gianforte, a Phillips County Rancher, and Second Vice President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association) dispelled any hope that they could put personal biases aside to appropriately manage Montana’s wildlife.

Commissioners ignored the majority of public comment that opposed some of the more extreme methods of wolf killing that passed in the spring’s legislative session. Instead, a 3-2 vote solidified the most regressive and hate-driven wolf management Montana has seen in recent memory. The commission voted to allow baiting and snaring as well as night hunting on private lands, institute a 10-wolf ‘limit’ for hunting and trapping, and remove quotas from the Wolf Management Units around Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

Additionally, the commission set no upper limit for how many wolves would be slaughtered, only a requirement that the commission meet again and consider adjustments once 450 wolves have been killed. Anywhere from 38 percent to 56 percent of Montana’s wolf population will be killed before there is even another conversation.

The rationale behind this level of state-sanctioned wolf slaughter remains utterly false. Commissioners continue to claim that wolves are decimating elk populations while simultaneously voting to extend elk-hunting shoulder seasons and expand shoulder season access onto public lands to deal with an abundance of elk. And according to the Livestock Loss Board, Montana producers have lost (and been reimbursed for) a mere 42 cattle and sheep to wolves this year, out of the approximately 2.5 million cows and sheep in the state. The bloodthirsty reality behind the decision making became clear when Commissioner Tabor stated that these ruthless measures are necessary to kill more wolves because wolves are hard to kill.

This marks a dark turn in wildlife management for a state that has historically been celebrated for its science-based, fair-chase hunting principles. It also makes it clear that Commissioners Tabor, Cebull, and Robinson care more about pleasing and lining the pockets of the livestock industry and trophy hunting groups than what the majority of Montanans want.

In another nod to the livestock industry, three days later, on August 23rd, Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) announced it would move forward with opening fourteen Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) to haying and grazing, despite 57 percent of public comments being in opposition.

This decision puts wildlife and wildlife habitat at risk as livestock operations have negative impacts on vegetation in a year with ‘normal’ amounts of moisture. In a year during which 98.7 percent of the state is experiencing severe to exceptional drought, chances are that any removal of already limited amounts of forage will be detrimental to wildlife that rely on these undisturbed areas for habitat.

Claiming only a temporary impact, FWP will allow grazing and haying operations on 8,500 acres of state WMAs, placing additional and avoidable stressors on wildlife. In what is becoming a common theme for FWP and the Fish and Wildlife Commission – hypocrisy – FWP approved this proposal while simultaneously putting out a press releaseon August 3 describing how “dry, hot conditions call for special consideration when living with wildlife.”

Amidst all of these conflicting directives, only two things are clear: Decision makers do not care what the public wants, and ecosystems and wildlife will take a back seat to the private profit of a few small industries in our state.