Montana Doubles Down on Wolf Slaughter

Photo: George Wuerthner.

This past week, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commission held a public hearing in Helena on Thursday, August 25th, to determine wolf hunting and trapping regulations. Unfortunately, they voted to permit 456 wolves to be slaughtered in the coming year.

I use the word “slaughter” on purpose. Montana, as well as other states like Idaho and Wyoming, permit the indiscriminate killing of wolves.

In 2021, 273 Montana wolves were killed by hunters/trappers, and 39 for preying on 67 cattle and 29 sheep. I have to mention that this official body count ignores the often-high number of poached wolves. Some studies suggest the number of animals killed by poachers is greatly underestimated.

As permitted in Montana, killing is indiscriminate with open hunting and trapping seasons. An individual can kill up to 20 wolves a season. It is not targeted. There is no science behind it. It is a slaughter.

At the recent hearing, a representative of the MFWPs used the word “harvest” wolves dozens of times as if he were talking about some wheat field. The use of “harvest” is designed to disassociate the pain, suffering, and social distress caused by hunting, particularly the barbaric practice of trapping animals.

Many people accept hunting as a socially justifiable practice if an animal is consumed as food. Still, in the case of predator killing, the main reason for the slaughter is based on a scientifically suspect rationale that we must “manage” wolves.

Advocates of wolf slaughter, including MDFWP, always talk about how they must “manage” wolves (or cougar, coyotes, and bears) as if these animal numbers would continuously grow and soon invade people’s backyards and school grounds. (I have had advocates of hunting and trapping tell me with all seriousness that they were killing wolves to protect school children who might be attacked and eaten while out on the playground—a modern version of Little Red Riding Hood).

Others claim that without “management” (code for killing), no elk or deer would be left. Yet MDFWP admits there is an abundance of elk in the state. The state’s objective for elk is 92,000 animals, and there is currently 170,000 elk in the state.

We are led to believe that these men and women are just looking out for the survival of the deer and elk out of their heartfelt concern that without predator control, these ungulates would suffer a fate worse than death—being eaten by a wolf.

Some hunter and trappers at the Commission hearing pulled out the old “I’m a fifth-generation Montanan, or I’m a fifth-generation rancher, as if the length of residency gave them greater authority to comment on how wolves should be treated. Certainly how long you lived someplace should not matter in a constitutional government where all citizens are in theory, supposed to have an equal voice.

The tolerance for opposing views is limited.

When Montana State University ecologist, Scott Creel, challenged MDFWP assumptions about how much mortality wolves could sustain, the Department tried to get him fired and removed from the University. They also threatened to withdraw their funding for research at the University.

Silencing critics of wolf hunting/trapping is a common practice.

Predators are, by their nature, self-regulating. Their numbers cannot grow larger infinitely because they are limited by prey availability. Wolves act a lot like humans. They have territories that they defend against intruders. When they can, they take over the territory of weaker packs—behavior similar to that practiced by humans for thousands of years


One of the ways agencies like MDFWP try to justify predator slaughter is by suggesting the wolf population is “stable.” MDFWP estimates there are 1,160 wolves in the state. FWP Director Hank Worsech was quoted in a report: “Our management of wolves, including ample hunting and trapping opportunities, have kept numbers at a relatively stable level during the past several years.”

The basic argument is whether wolves die from humans or other causes is balanced out. Of course, wolves killed by trappers and hunters would die anyway. But some researchsuggests that human-caused mortality is “additive” rather than compensatory. In other words, yes, some wolves would die no matter what, but hunting and trapping may increase the total wolf losses.

Furthermore, the animals caught or killed by hunters and trappers may differ from the wolves dying under “natural” conditions.

The agency talks about “populations” rather than acknowledging that predators form social relationships. These social relationships are disrupted and harmed when there is indiscriminate killing.

Nor do they acknowledge that hunting and trapping often have the opposite effect on wolves than their stated goal of reducing livestock and ungulate losses.

For example, say there is a wolf “population” of 20 animals in one area. That wolf population could consist of one large pack with 15 adults and, say, five pups, or where the animals are continuously hunted/trapped. Conversely, the wolves may be in four packs with five members,  each consisting of 2 adults and 3 pups. There are still 20 wolves overall, so what is the problem?

A large pack is more competitive. It can hold the best territories where prey is plentiful. Smaller packs are marginalized to territories with less abundant prey.

Plenty of research shows that smaller packs are less efficient at hunting and may even kill more elk and deer. Here’s why. If you are a large pack and bring down an elk or deer, several pack members can guard the carcass, and there is total prey consumption.

However, if you are a small pack, by the time you can return to bring more food back to the pups, other scavengers, from coyotes to magpies, often have consumed the remaining carcass. And the adults are forced to kill another deer or elk.

For similar reasons, the indiscriminate slaughter of wolves can sometimes lead to more livestock depredation. A small pack’s ability to find suitable prey is diminished, and killing a calf or lamb is easier.


One thing wolf advocates need to remember is that not all agency employees are advocates of predator control. My experience is that most informed biologists know that indiscriminate wolf killing cannot be justified.

To illustrate, I was hiking near Helena, Montana, several years ago. As I headed up the trail, I met another hiker who stopped me and said, “You’re George Wuerthner, right?” And I acknowledge that I was—and to be honest—I’m always a bit reluctant to do this since I have been attacked, had my life threatened, property damaged, etc., by people who didn’t appreciate my views.

He said, “I just want you to know that I agree that there is no justification for killing predators. I work for MDFWP, and I’m their cougar specialist.”

He explained that his research and other biologists show that killing cougars disrupts the social order and creates more chaos, making it more likely that cougars will attack livestock, pets, and sometimes even people. So science does not support the justification that we must kill predators to “protect” people and livestock. Instead, killing cougars has the opposite effect.

He said he was censored by the Department, which would not even allow him to publish a paper on his research.

Ironically later that week, I met with a college class in the Swan Valley of Montana, where I was again asked to discuss wolf policies. The instructor had asked an MDFWP wolf biologist to present what he anticipated would be an opposing viewpoint. I went first and explained why killing predators was counter-productive and morally corrupt.

When it came time for the MDFWP biologist to speak, he agreed with all my points. He did not support MDFWP predator policies. Later, he pulled me aside and asked me if I knew of any potential jobs outside the Department.

A third example occurred when the MDFWP commission first met to determine whether to even have a hunting and trapping season for wolves. I testified at the hearing against any hunting or trapping in Montana.

I knew three of the commissioners personally and had regular discussions with them on wildlife issues. One of them was Dr. Bob Ream (now deceased), who was my advisor when I was a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana. Bob was the leader of the Wolf Ecology Project and loved wolves. I spent days out in the field with Bob looking for wolves. Yet even he voted to have a hunting and trapping season.

When I asked Bob why he voted to allow wolf hunting, he told me he hated doing that. Still, he feared that if there were no season, the legislature (dominated by ranchers and hunters) would override the Department and designate even more extreme measures. The other two commissioners I knew personally more or less told me the same rationale for why they, too, voted to have a wolf hunting and trapping season. Unfortunately, Bob was right.

In 2021 the Montana legislature passed laws to allow for the barbaric practice of snares for wolf trapping. They extended the wolf trapping season and even allowed the use of bait and night hunting of wolves on private land. The legislature also directed FWP to reduce the wolf population to “a lower, sustainable level.


I mention this to illustrate that many agency biologists are under strict orders to toe the party line. If any of these biologists were to speak out, they would lose their jobs. Some might suggest that they are culpable in the unnecessary slaughter. Still, in my experience, most predator biologists don’t support indiscriminate predator killing, and they struggle inside the agency to advocate for the animals they study and love.

These biologists rely on citizen support and why it’s critical for citizens to show up at hearings, write letters and voice their opposition to these barbaric practices. Of course, there are people in all these agencies who view predator killing as reprehensible. But, to the degree they have any influence, it is when citizens voice their moral outrage.

In a sense, even this pro-wolf slaughter commission that met this week in Helena was influenced (slightly) by the outpouring of outrage over the killing of wolves that wandered from Yellowstone National Park. This past year 25 “Park” wolves were killed when they strayed beyond the safety of the park protection. This includes 21 Yellowstone wolves and the entire Phantom Lake pack that were eliminated just north of the park near Gardiner, Montana.  In response, the commission agreed to limit the annual wolf kill along Yellowstone’s border to six wolves.

But the focus on Yellowstone wolves obscures the more significant issue. The killing of any predator has no moral or scientific justification. I’m just as concerned about the hundreds of other wolves shot, trapped, and snared across the state as I am about animals that may stray from Yellowstone Park.

Some people testifying against wolf trapping/hunting made the point that the loss of Yellowstone wolves had harmed wolf guiding and viewing opportunities in the park—which it certainly has.

I believe there is a danger in focusing on Yellowstone wolves. All wolves deserve to live free of human-caused harassment and death.

I can give numerous ecological reasons for protecting wolves, including their role as top-down cascade influences on other animals like elk and deer. But the reason I oppose wolf hunting and trapping go more to my sense of ethics. Humans have a debt to the planet. One of the ways we can pay our dues is to heal the Earth by restoring predators like the wolf.

To that end, I oppose all wolf hunting and trapping. I’m willing to concede to a surgical removal of a particular animal that might threaten human life or property, but indiscriminate hunting and trapping is slaughter.

It is time we call these actions what they are. We humans must acknowledge that we have a moral obligation to share the planet with other creatures and give them the space and opportunity to live with minimal human persecution.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy