By NICK GEVOCK Montana Standard
BUTTE – Hunters across Montana had killed less than half the quota of wolves set by state biologists as of Sunday, the end of rifle season for deer and elk.
The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had recorded that hunters had shot 99 wolves by Sunday across 14 management units. The quota was reached in only one wolf district, the large unit that stretches from just east of Butte to the North Dakota state line.
But the total wolf kill lags well behind the 220 statewide quota state biologists set this year. The target wolf kill is the number needed to reduce predation on game animals and cut down on attacks on livestock, state biologists said.
With many hunters packing away their rifles for the season, state biologists are waiting to see how many keep going into the field, said Quentin Kujala, FWP wildlife section chief.
“The next question in my mind is whether the deer and elk season is going to be the only season for wolf?” he said.
Biologists have proposed to extend the wolf season through January beyond its scheduled closing Dec. 31 in an effort to reach the quota. The proposal will come before the FWP Commission next month.
Kujala said FWP is still in the learning phase for wolf hunting, far from the century of experience the agency has managing deer and elk. But from past seasons, including the extended hunts for elk in recent years, hunter participation drops off substantially after Thanksgiving.
And Kujala said FWP expected the bulk of the wolf harvest to come from deer and elk hunters who came across wolves by chance.
“Most hunters say ‘I’m just not going to put aside my deer and elk season for wolves,’ ” he said. “So it will be interesting to see if anybody shows up and if they’ll be effective at harvesting wolves in a season that doesn’t include other harvest opportunities.”
Howard Burt, Bozeman FWP regional wildlife manager, said the low wolf harvest reflected the season for deer and elk. He added that wolf hunting is difficult and only made more so without snow and cold temperatures.
Mike Thompson, Missoula FWP regional wildlife manager, noted that some of the wolf quotas in western Montana are far from being filled and FWP needs hunters help.
“We worked as a state pretty long and hard to try to win the management authority on wolves just like we have for other game species,” Thompson said. “Now there isn’t anybody else stopping us from achieving our objectives, except for the success of hunters themselves.”
That’s especially the case in the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, a small district with a quota of 18 wolves. As of Sunday only three wolves had been taken there.
The area’s elk herd has struggled in recent years and has shown low numbers of calves, Thompson said. Biologists are conducting a study on the herd, but have already found that predation by wolves and mountain lions are a factor.
The quota for mountain lions was raised and could be bumped up even more next year, Thompson said. He said biologists also want to kill some wolves, but this year the area was open only to 100 hunters with special permits for deer or elk.
Now Thompson said they want hunters to stay persistent and actively pursue wolves.
“We need to accomplish this harvest,” he said. “It is indeed a prescription that we want to fill and we need to measure the effect.”
For updates on the hunt, go to www.fwp.mt.gov and click on “wolf hunt.”