By Jim Robbins
© The New York Times Co.
HELENA, MONT. » In addition to its spectacular landscape of mountains, rivers and prairie, Montana, the third-least populous state in the country, has long been known for something else — wildlife policies that have protected animals of all sorts, including ones such as grizzly bears and gray wolves that are often seen as threats to humans and to farming and ranching.
The state’s abundance and variety of wildlife has been a selling point for tourism, a source of pride to many Montanans and something that has set it apart from its less ecologically minded neighbors in the Mountain West. Even as its neighboring states of Idaho and Wyoming have aggressively reduced their wolf population, for example, Montana has managed its numbers largely through hunting seasons and targeted lethal control actions by wildlife biologists.
Now, with its first Republican governor in 16 years, Greg Gianforte, and a solidly Republican Legislature, the politics of predators seem poised to enter a new chapter. In the West these days, predators are very much part of the culture wars, and the state now seems intent on reviving some of the practices of a century ago that virtually exterminated wolves from Montana.
Several bills are headed to Gianforte’s desk that would allow for more killing of wolves in the state to drive down their numbers. Practices that are being proposed include the use of spotlights at night, which is considered unethical because it temporarily blinds the animal; hunting animals by luring them with bait such as wild game or commercial scents; night vision scopes and widening use of neck snares that catch and choke animals to death.
Other controversial predator proposals allow hunting black bears with hounds — a practice outlawed a century ago — and placing limits on where wandering grizzlies can be moved, which conservationists say could lead to more bear deaths.
Proponents of the changes say the state is overwhelmed by the presence of too many predators. At a hearing, State Sen. Bob Brown, a Republican who introduced one of the bills, said many of his constituents felt they had “no voice,” and that game — in particular elk and deer — that they depended on to fill their freezers was being eliminated by wolves instead.
“We can’t sit by and allow our game — the thing that feeds so many families — to be taken off the table,” he said.
Critics say the state is embarking on a wholesale war on wildlife that is based on little more than emotion and supposition, and rejecting decades’ worth of management lessons.
“It’s bar talk replacing biology,” said Ed Bangs, a wildlife biologist who is now retired and used to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery project.
“People are saying it seems like there are fewer elk and deer, so it must be the wolves,” he said. “I believe in professionalism and vetting with science; this is based on bar talk.”
Bangs is one of more than 50 wildlife biologists who have signed a letter calling on Republican officials to reject the legislation. The bills have passed, or are near passing, both houses of the Legislature and are awaiting a decision by the governor.
Experts say these changes, if they occur, probably would not cause a crash in the number of wolves and grizzlies to the point where their existence is seriously threatened. Instead, in their letter, the wildlife scientists say the bills “are harmful to wildlife, harmful to the image of hunters, contrary to science and wrong for Montana.”
“This is an all-out war on wolves,” said Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We support ethical fair chase hunting of wolves. This is going way overboard. It’s a 19th-century approach.”
In February, Gianforte trapped and shot a black, radio-collared wolf known as 1155 that had come north onto a private ranch from nearby Yellowstone National Park. While trapping and even shooting a collared wolf outside the park is legal in Montana, the governor had neglected to take a required three-hour wolf trapping certification course that teaches hunters to trap and hunt wolves “ethically, humanely and lawfully.”