Montana Can Do Better With Its First Wolf Hunt

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogToo many wolves from Yellowstone National Park and the wilderness area immediately north of the Park have already been killed in Montana's first public wolf hunt in decades, which is why Montana temporarily suspended the backcountry wolf hunt just north of Yellowstone yesterday.

This brief respite is good news, and the famous wolves of Yellowstone can let loose a quick howl of relief.

I wrote about the ridiculousness of this backcountry hunt two days ago, and the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about my blog yesterday morning.

In an article about the suspension of the hunt, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Commissioner Ron Moody said, "We don't want to kill the wilderness wolves and the wolves that don't need some education, (we want to go after) those on the ranch land."

If that's the case, how could FWP have expected wilderness and Yellowstone wolves not to have been the only wolves killed when they opened the backcountry wilderness areas to wolf-hunting on September 15th -- and wolf-hunting in the front country doesn't open until October 25th?  With anti-wolf rhetoric boiling over in the Northern Rockies, what did Montana think was going to happen during the 40 days when only the backcountry was open to hunting?

The way FWP set up the hunt, wolves are being "educated" out of wilderness areas, which is the exact opposite effect Montana was shooting for with its wolf hunt. 

(And query what type of "education" a dead wolf receives.)

Besides the flawed timing and geography of the hunt, another big problem is that Montana chose not to create a no-hunt buffer zone around Yellowstone National Park.  As such, the design of the hunt jeopardized the Park's famous wolves from the outset. 

Yellowstone's wolves freely wander in and out of the Park, they cannot read maps, and many are accustomed to seeing humans staring at them (with spotting scopes inside the Park, and now rifles outside the Park).  Why didn't Montana create a buffer around Yellowstone to protect the Park's legendary wolves? 

Canada did so to protect the wolves of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario.  And those wolves are not nearly as famous as the wolves of Yellowstone, who have starred in many PBS, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and Discovery Channel documentaries.  Yellowstone's wolves also attract wolf-watching tourists from all over the world, who annually spend about $35 million in the communities around Yellowstone. 

It's encouraging that Montana realized its error and has temporarily suspended the backcountry hunt just north of Yellowstone until hunting in the front country begins on October 25th.  Hopefully Montana will further modify its wolf hunt in the next two weeks to prevent another emergency suspension of the hunt because "unforeseen" problems arose. 

Here are three suggested alterations Montana should make:

(1)  Create a buffer zone around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks where hunting wolves is prohibited.  Yellowstone's wolves are some of the most studied wolves in the world.  A buffer zone based on pack movements in and out of the Park could easily be established.

(2)  Ban wolf-hunting in wilderness areas where wolves are encouraged to live and no conflicts loom.  "Educate" wolves out of the front country and into wilderness areas.

(3)  Forbid wolf-hunting in key corridor areas, such as the Centennial Mountains in southwest Montana.  One of the big issues with wolf recovery is that meaningful genetic exchange between the subpopulations of central Idaho, northwest Montana, and Greater Yellowstone has not yet been achieved.  Killing wolves trying to disperse between central Idaho and Greater Yellowstone will only make it more difficult for significant genetic connectivity to transpire.

It's disappointing that these premature wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana are proceeding at all.  And it's tragic that several wilderness wolves and multiple Yellowstone wolves have already been killed, including the Cottonwood Pack and radio-collared wolves from the Yellowstone Wolf Project. 

With the way Montana designed its wolf hunt, it had to have seen this coming.  Fortunately, however, it pressed the pause button in the hunting zone just north of Yellowstone (albeit after 75% of the quota has already been killed there). 

Now it's time for Montana to go back to the drawing board and make some real substantive changes to the entire wolf hunt.

Montana should need no greater reminder of what's at stake than the Yellowstone and wilderness wolves already needlessly killed under its management. 

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.