Wolf Conservation photo

The following short essay on wolves in Montana ran recently on Montana Public Radio, and was written and presented by Ben Lamb, of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Ben is a native Montanan and serious hunter and fishermen whom I’ve gotten to know through his tireless work on some of the biggest issues facing Montana sportsmen- energy development, wolves,etc. I’m proud to call Ben a friend, and I read his essay on wolves with admiration. It caused a stir in Montana, for those who heard it on the radio, because it is probably the first truly measured statement on the issue from a hunter and wildlife advocate. See what you think.

Wolves by Ben Lamb

_It’s been over a month since Judge Molloy put wolves back on the Endangered Species List. This really didn’t surprise most folks. Sure, many were disappointed, but if you’d paid much attention to the issue, you knew it was coming.

__A lot has happened in that month. The typical rhetoric has been ramped up both in favor of and against relisting. But what’s really troubling is the number of reasonable, hard working, stand up Montanans who are letting their frustration get to them. Now, more than ever, are we hearing about folks who will be following the worst path that hunters and outdoorsmen could take.

Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up. That’s the phrase folks are saying. That is the worst thing that we, as hunters, could do. It violates the basic tenants of the North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. It also gives credence to the claims that hunters have little tolerance for wildlife that we do not pursue.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is this: hunters helped fund the restoration of wolves to the Northern Rockies through the use of Pittman Roberts/Dingle Johnson monies. PR/DJ monies are an excise tax collected on sporting equipment such as guns, ammo and fishing gear. No other recreational industry has such a tax placed on it. PR/DJ monies generally go to wildlife habitat restoration, purchasing of conservation easements, improving wildlife habitat in general. That means that hunters have funded, for the better part of a century, the protection of wildlife habitat for elk and deer as well as grizzly bears and yes, wolves.

Hunters are pro-wolf. We know that wolves have a valuable place on the landscape, and that they are a part of what makes Montana special. Most hunters whom have had wolf experiences all talk of the awe they inspire, and the grace with which they move. Wolves make us better hunters.

Aldo Leopold, the father of modern ecology, noted on his farm that when too many deer were in the woods, the trees and native plants suffered from over grazing. He also was the first to tie the health of the landscape to having wolves around. We agree. Wolves help maintain elk distribution, and they certainly make hunting more challenging. However, like too many deer, in some areas where there are an overabundance of wolves, we are seeing too few game species to maintain both hunter opportunity, and predator numbers. That throws wildlife management out of balance, and creates a situation where we have neither predators nor prey and increases frustrations.

The West Fork of the Bitterroot is a prime example. Bull/Cow ratios are at critical levels, and cow/calf ratios have hit a point where we will not see an increase in this herd until we can adjust the number of mouths to feed. That’s why FWP is actively engaged in improving habitat conditions on the ground, hunters and outfitters have called for reduced hunting pressure, and now, 12 conservation organizations around the state have asked that the Endangered Species Act be used as it was intended, and a small number of wolves be removed out of the West Fork, to help those elk regain a foothold and increase their numbers from roughly 750 to the former herd of over 2,000.

Montanans are engaged in a delicate balancing act where we need to be actively involved on managing the numbers of ungulates and predators in order to fit the landscape in which we live. It’s no longer 1804. Vast expanses of unbroken land exist in only a few places. The rest of Montana is a mix of working landscapes and in many instances, fragmented habitats.

That means that wolves, like elk, and other species of wildlife, don’t get a free hand like they used to.

We can’t control what outside interests do in regards to wolf management, but we can, as hunters, police our own ranks and continue to work within the system to gain as much ground as possible in putting wolves back under the management of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Hunters and state management agencies have an over 100 year history of doing the right thing for wildlife. To think that wolves wouldn’t be managed for genetic viability and social tolerances is to deny this incredibly successful heritage. Hunters know that wolves will be with us from now on, and how we respond to their presence in light of setback after setback is more a mark of our own personal character than our own selfish interest.

It’s about balance, and the need to ensure that all species have a place on the land. Hunters continue to sacrifice their opportunity in order to maintain functioning ecosystems. We should be proud of that sacrifice. Management will be returned to the State, but it will take a little more time. What is needed now is a little more patience, and a lot of ethical outdoorsmanship.

This fall, when you are out in the field, and you see a wolf, remember this quote from Aldo Leopold:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Hunters, more than anyone, know what it means to be in wilderness. We know what that green fire is that Leopold talked about. We have that fire._

Reprinted with permission from the Montana Wildlife Federation