by Eve Byron, Independent Record
With an estimated 1,645 gray wolves now on the landscape in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, their recovery is heralded by many government officials as an amazing success story.
Yet it hasn’t come cheap.
Americans have spent more than $35 million to protect, reintroduce and manage gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains since they were first put on the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1974. And since gray wolves are no longer a federally protected species in Montana and Idaho, those states are now in charge of managing them – and footing the bill for doing so.
In recent years, federal allocations, coupled with some private donations, ranged annually from a recent low of $1.2 million in 2002 to a high of almost $4.7 million in 2008 to manage wolves in the Rocky Mountains. That doesn’t include at least $1 million spent each year to investigate alleged livestock deaths from wolves, track them and sometimes shoot them for preying on cattle and sheep.
“So where do we go from here, and how the hell do we pay for it?” Shane Colton, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, ruefully asked during a recent work session with state and federal officials. “It’s a difficult task, but a challenge that we welcome. Thank you, I guess.”
The issue of who should or will pay for management of a recovered wolf population has been the subject of an intense debate, noted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2001 annual wolf report, and that discussion is ongoing today.
Many Montanans argue that it was people from throughout the nation who wanted the wolves back on the landscape, so the federal government should pay for managing them.
“The thing that upsets me as much as anything is the federal government introduced wolves in Montana. We had nothing to do with it,” FWP Commissioner Willie Doll said. “Why don’t they protect (wolves) when they’re here then?”
But historically, states like Montana pay for management of wild animals such as mountain lions, bears, deer and elk, mainly using revenues from the sale of hunting licenses. Montana’s first-ever wolf hunt, which starts today, raised almost $245,000 through the sale of 11,812 licenses. Yet officials note that they’re not sure if those numbers will remain steady as the novelty of hunting wolves wears off, and they realize it’s only a fraction of what the federal government pays to manage them.
An analysis from Montana’s 2003 wolf management plan puts the state’s annual cost for wolves in the $907,000 to $948,000 range. That includes about $456,000 for wildlife biologists, operations and monitoring; $157,000 for an enforcement staff and operations; $54,000 for conservation education; $50,000 for fiscal, legal and administration costs; $50,000 for proactive, preventative efforts; and $100,000 for depredation and predator control. Another $40,000 to $81,000 is estimated to be needed to pay for livestock compensation.
“Everybody is worried about the money, and that’s a fair question and a conundrum for all of us to be thinking about and to get our arms around,” Carolyn Sime, Montana’s wolf coordinator, said last week. “License revenue, in the end, is not going to match what we have been spending on average in Montana.”
Both Sime and Ed Bangs, who was in charge of the federal wolf reintroduction effort in the Rocky Mountains, say wolf management can be done for a lot less. That would mean less monitoring – mainly, collaring and tracking fewer wolves – which is something Bangs has advocated for years.
“What I like about wolves is they are wild. There’s something mysterious about them. But our response to controversy is to micromanage them,” Bangs said. “Technology resolves some of the angst, but it comes at a high price, and I think it’s unsustainable. But every time we try to back off, the public demands more management.
“Wolves hold a lot of fascination for people, and most people still can’t believe that wolves are just animals.”
He notes that some environmentalists want to know exactly how many wolves are on the landscape to make sure they’re recovered fully. Ranchers want them radio-collared so they know when wolves are around livestock. Researchers want them collared to track them easier. Law enforcement officers who shoot wolves that prey on livestock want collars so it’s easier to find renegade wolves.
“The public demands such high levels of information, and that technology gives a false sense of security and the illusion of control,” Bangs said.
Sime agrees, adding that the biology of wolves is pretty straightforward, so that’s not where the money is being spent.
“From the technical point of view, managing wolves is a pretty basic venture,” Sime said. “What’s more challenging is balancing all of the different preferences for how that species is managed.”
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, is part of a lawsuit filed in opposition to the delisting, and said he still thinks it’s premature to call wolves fully recovered on the landscape. Yet he agrees with Bangs and Sime that too much money is being spent on studying wolves – federal funds that Garrity and others would rather see go toward aiding other endangered species like bull trout.
“Most of this management to keep track of them is just so they can kill them easier,” Garrity said. “We don’t really need to study them anymore, but we do need to do a better job of reducing depredation.
“We think they should be treated like wild animals and not have to collar every pack.”
Bangs counters that if someone calls his office to inquire about the number of wolves and their location and he says that there are generally about 500 wolves are in Montana, he gets dinged for not knowing details. But if he answers that there are 641 and this is where they are, everyone is happy.
Like other Montanans, Garrity agrees that hunters shouldn’t have to bear the entire cost of wolf management, noting that since people visit Montana to view wildlife, perhaps some general fund dollars should go toward the expense.
Sime adds that they’ve also explored looking at funding from the bed or rental car taxes.
“Or they could put a surcharge at the National Park gates, but that would literally take an act of Congress,” Sime said. “So there is a wide variety of options, yet day in and day out on the ground, wolves are running around doing what they do. We are getting to the crux of needing some hard decisions by policy makers.”
While Garrity and others say that some federal funding would be helpful since this was a national push to reintroduce wolves on the landscape, they caution that those dollars come with strings attached.
Montana’s management plan notes that the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were investigating the idea of a grizzly bear/gray wolf trust fund that could be created through a special federal appropriation to fund the long-term conservation and management of the two species, since they have national significance.
That idea hasn’t moved forward, though, and Montana’s congressional delegation is cautious about the state’s relinquishing any management control in order to get federal funding.
“While it’s tempting to keep the federal government financially involved, there are always strings attached to federal assistance,” noted Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. “Now that we’ve finally put control of wolves back in the hands of the state where it belongs, we should be very careful about inviting the federal government back to the table.”
Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus also are hesitant to state whether Montanans should cover the cost of managing wolves or try to gain some federal funding.
“I want to weigh all the options out there to make sure Montana will continue to successfully manage wolves,” Tester said, but noted that he procured $1 million in federal funding for the three-state area to help repay ranchers who lose livestock to wolves.
Baucus’ office said that he’s looking for solutions, and the federal government must “play its part.”
Bangs is hopeful that after the hoopla surrounding the gray wolf reintroduction to the Rocky Mountains dies down – it’s been controversial even before they were released into the wild in 1995 – they can be quietly managed like mountain lions or black bears.
“You’ll have a bunch of wolves all over the place, safely above the management levels, and you don’t need to monitor them as much, so there will be less cost,” Bangs said.
But he cautions that the wolf population already is heavily harvested both illegally and for depredation, with 988 killed in the three-state area since 1987 for preying on livestock, and that the worst thing Montana can do is to make substantial changes and have populations drop, prompting the federal government to once again take the lead in managing the species.
“Montana’s got the toughest job by far, because the wolves here live in a highly fragmented landscape, with a mix of public and private lands,” Bangs said. “â€¦ But I think the issue both wolf opponents and proponents agree on is that the cost of the program is too high.
“The current program is kind of a Cadillac, and Montana sets the gold standard for planning, managing and public involvement. You can spend three times as much as you are now and to some people it will not be enough.”