Must Montana’s Wolves Die?

Trumpist political culture is on the rise in the state, and with it a renewed war against this apex predator.

DEATH IS SPREADING across Montana this fall. Among unvaccinated people, Covid-19 infections are rising and intensive care units are so maxed out that one ER manager mourned that “we are running out of hallways.” As of today October 26, at least 2,260 people had died of the disease and the state had one of the highest number of per capita Covid-19 cases in the country (97 per 100,000 people).

Montana’s estimated 800 to 1,270 gray wolves face an onslaught from hunters and trappers who can now use unlimited numbers of steel-clawed leg traps and cheap neck-snares on the animals, even on public lands. Photo by Amaury Laporte / Flickr..

Meanwhile, in the mountain forests and plains, Montana’s estimated 800 to 1,270 gray wolves face an onslaught from hunters and trappers empowered by lethal new laws. Hunters are now allowed to use unlimited numbers of steel-clawed leg traps that hold wolves captive and cheap neck-snares that strangle them, even on public lands. It’s also legal to hunt the animals at night and to attract them with bait. Montana’s goal is to kill and kill until only some 200 wolves are left. These two kinds of death—human and wolf — are disparate but connected by far-Right wing hatred of the federal government and a Trumpist political culture that embraces fundamentalist Protestantism while rejecting science in deciding public policies.

I ARRIVED IN MONTANA in mid-August, months after anti-wolf legislation had passed, but before the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Commissioners had authorized implementation rules. Hearings were scheduled in the state capitol, Helena. Montana felt like a different place than the one I’d visited a decade earlier to report on the war against wolves, and not just because winter snows had given way to heat and smoke — like the rest of the West, Montana’s forests were burning. In 2011, a far-Right movement had been in the finishing stages of a successful 15-year campaign to have wolves removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Bumper stickers and posters of agit-prop imagery and slogans were everywhere: a snarling wolf paired with the words “Natural Born Killers”; “Smoke a Pack a Day,” accompanied with the image of a wolf in a rifle scope’s crosshairs.

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This time, all that violent anti-wolf porn was absent – perhaps because the Right had won so completely. Greg Gianforte, who earlier had been convicted of body-slamming a Guardian reporter, is now Montana’s governor. Gianforte won the 2020 governor’s race with Trump’s support —the first Republican gubernatorial victory in the state in 16 years — and his far-Right credentials were impeccable. Gianforte’s family foundation and trust helped bankroll the national Family Research Council and the Montana Family Foundation, which leads local anti-LGBTQ efforts. His embrace of Right wing fundamentalism extended to funding a “young earth creationism” museum in Montana whose exhibits reject the theory of evolution and portray dinosaurs as having journeyed on Noah’s Ark. Most of the Republican lower ballot ticket won as well, putting slightly over two-thirds of the state senate and house in Republican control.

The effect of the Republican takeover on the state’s Covid response was immediate. Although he himself had been vaccinated, a month after taking office Gianforte rescinded the previous Democratic governor’s mask mandate, contending that masks had not been proven to reduce disease transmission. After several Montana public school districts announced mask requirements for the fall 2021 semester, Gianforte’s Department of Public Health and Human Services issued an executive order at the end of August forbidding them to do so. The department ruled that families could also “opt out” “based on “physical, mental, emotional, or psychological concerns” or “religious belief, moral conviction or other fundamental right.”

The attack on the wolves was equally fast. When the animals were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) set conditions for letting Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming manage their own wolf populations. Each state had to retain a small population and a number of breeding adults. For Montana, the USFWS demanded 150 adults, including 15 breeding pairs. If more wolves were killed, then the USFWD could relist wolves as an endangered species. That meant renewed protection and no more annual hunts. To avoid this “disaster,” Montana politicians and the FWP thought the state needed to maintain 200 wolves. The irony was that despite the best efforts of hunters and trappers from 2011-2020, wolf populations stayed stable at 800 to 1,200. (Counts in this period were always estimates, a combination of actual sightings and computer models.) Hunters and trappers killed 200 to 300 wolves yearly and ranchers and federal agents, going after those that killed livestock, killed another 70 to 110. But the rest of the wolves hid, melted into the shadows. Back in 2011, people on both sides of the wolf wars told me, “You know, wolves are really smart.”

A 2019 legislative attempt to increase wolf killing by allowing night hunting failed, in part because Ken McDonald, the FWP Wildlife Bureau Chief, appeared before a house committee to oppose it on behalf of the department. The practice was unsafe, he argued, because hunters would not be able “to identify the target and what lies behind [it]. No other game species is hunted at night. It’s not fair chase and ethical hunting. Night hunting of wolves would create a bruised reputation for Montana.” In another era, the wolf war might have ended there.

A hunter by the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, Montana. In the absence of actual science “barroom biology” has come to dominate the state’s approach to managing wolves. Photo by Bob Wick/ BLM.

Grey wolf siblings at Yellowstone National Park. ​Photo by Jeremy Weber.

Anti-wolf posters from 2011, courtesy of Lynne Stone, Boulder White Clouds Council.

But not in 2021. Greg Gianforte had long been a member of the Montana Trappers Association. In 2016-2017 he donated $10,000 towards defeating a ballot initiative to outlaw trapping on public lands. Shortly after he became governor, Gianforte was briefly embroiled in controversy after he trapped and shot a wolf near Yellowstone National Park and it was revealed that he had not taken the three-hour required trapper certification class.

THE RIGHT’S OBSESSION with killing wolves, however, has always been about something bigger than hunting. When the federal government and its allies in the environmental movement first re-introduced wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 decades after they had been driven extinct there, the far-Right began a prolonged outreach campaign to persuade Montanans that the federal government was destroying their ability to control their own lives. The argument goes: The feds were ordering Montana to accept wolves (which were a threat to their livestock and thus the livelihood of many ranchers), just as for decades the US Forest Service had imposed regulations on the timber harvest, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had restricted the mining industry by imposing regulations on pollution from mining, smelting, and waste dumping.

Wolves became metaphors, demons by proxy, which made killing them a vivid way of symbolically rejecting the federal government. In 2011, the far-Right also argued that the wolves were a dangerous new breed from Canada, much larger than the previous American wolves, that bred quickly, carried disease, and attacked humans. None of this was true. In 2021, a new claim has arisen: The existing wolf packs have ravaged the state’s elk and deer herds.

“Ten years ago, on an 18-mile stretch, we’d see upwards of 100 deer, always some elk,” State Senator Bob Brown told me over lunch in Thompson Falls, in the state’s northwest. “For years, elk tracks I’ve seen had wolf tracks mixed up with them. Now elk and deer tracks have become few and far between. Every outfitter [a professional hunting trip organizer] drew the same result. Last season [2020-21] riding that same 18-mile track we saw one deer, no moose and no elk.”

The consequence, Brown said, was no meat on the table for his constituents. “Construction is down. The timber industry is down. There used to be five lumber mills in the valley. Now there is only one. People here depend on hunting elk and deer to feed their family. They can’t afford beef.”

Brown and his state House of Representatives colleague Paul Fielder, also from Thompson Falls and a former executive director of the Montana Trappers Association, co-wrote the recent bills that expanded the wolf-killing quota.

No one in the state legislature has publicly contested Brown’s claims but the fact is, there is no scarcity of big game in Montana. Every year the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department counts elk and deer. The FWP’s own yearly elk count in 2020 found over 136,000 elk in Montana, far above its “elk plan objective” of 92,000, the number considered ecologically sustainable. None of the state’s seven administrative regions ranked elk populations below “at objective,” and in five regions elk numbers ranked as “over objective.” Even in areas in and around Brown and Fielder’s constituencies some 3,350 elk were counted in 2020, a figure in the “at objective” range. Deer herds in Montana were similarly thriving. The 2020 count found 328,000 whitetail and 195,000 mule deer — half-a-million deer.

Yes, some elk had been killed by predators — but mostly not by wolves. One recent study from the FWP found that wolves do not appear to have a greater impact on the elk population than other predators. Mountain lions and black bears may be more important.

One recent study from the Montana FWP found that wolves do not appear to have a greater impact on the elk population than other predators. Mountain lions and black bears may be more important. Photo by Neal Herbert / NPS.

There is no scarcity of big game in Montana. Data shows the state’s deer and elk herds are thriving. Photo by Neal Herbert / NPS.

Apparently, the number of wolves estimated to live in Montana was the only bit of wildlife biology the Montana governor’s office and legislature wanted to know. All the other studies, both the simple population figures on elk and deer, and the more complicated research into predation, were pushed down into an Orwellian “memory hole.”

The Gianforte government, it appears, has muzzled the FWP. Where once the FWP had sent a representative to oppose a bill legalizing hunting of wolves at night, now a manager can appear before legislative committees only as an “informational witness,” meaning he or she would only respond to a direct question from a legislator, and answer as briefly as possible. The FWP would no longer support or oppose bills. Wildlife advocate KC York, president of Trap Free Montana, described her frustration. Representatives of FWP would respond to legislators’ questions with “I don’t have that information,” she said. In several hearings about hunting and trapping bills “the FWP didn’t show up at all.”

Chris Servheen, a retired wildlife biologist in charge of grizzly bear recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for 35 years and vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest wildlife conservation group, said he had heard from colleagues in FWP during January and February “that they were instructed not to talk to the press and not get involved in discussions with the legislature. They were made to feel that there was not anything they should get involved with.” Servheen organized his fellow Montana-based federal and state wildlife biologists and in March this year, 49 wildlife biologists (mostly retired) and other professionals in the field, including 16 retired FWP biologists, filed a letter to Governor Gianforte and the members of the Montana legislature to protest the wolf-killing legislation. They received no response from Montana administration officials; a few Democratic legislators said thanks. (Servheen subsequently wrote an op-ed on behalf of his group of wildlife scientists for the online publication, Mountain Journal.)

In the absence of actual science, what Servheen calls “barroom biology” has come to dominate the state’s approach to managing wolves. “If you go into a bar in hunting season, you hear guys say ‘I don’t see any elk’ and others agreeing ‘I didn’t see any elk, either.’” Rather than accept that this might be random, that a hunter might miss passing elk simply by turning left not right in a forest, hunters “come up with reasons why they didn’t get an elk.”

Ironically, Brown admitted to me that he thought it possible many of the elk in his area, rather than being killed by wolves, had been “pushed off public lands by hunting pressure onto private property.” But Brown did not explore this possibility further when crafting his anti-wolf legislation. Instead, as Servheen explains, “blaming the predators became the new thing, especially blaming the wolves. Hunters complain, ‘It’s the damn wolves. They ate the elk.’”

In the presence of doctrine and the absence of science, Covid is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous, and the wolves are the enemy. And when it comes to wolves, the natural next step is to offer laws that increase the odds of killing them, or what I frequently heard proponents describe as “using every tool in our toolbox.”

MONTANA REMAINS A COVID-19 hotspot, with 173,104 reported Covid cases since 2020 (as of October 26) in a population of just over one million. Sanders County, home of Bob Brown and Paul Fielder, is among the severely hit areas. Only 34 percent of residents (38 percent of 12 and up) have been fully vaccinated and test positivity rate over the last half of September averaged 24 percent, according to The New York Times Covid tracker. However, attitudes might be changing. Healthcare professionals such as the Montana Nurses Association and 17 staff epidemiologists at the Montana Department of Health and Human Services have protested the Gianforte administration’s position on ending broad mandates making masks required. And vaccination rates are going up, which means that sometime in 2022, the infection rate might decline.

But the wolves don’t have a wonder drug to help them survive the state’s mid-September to mid-March open season. By October 26, only 29 wolves were reported killed, but that could be because there’s no snow on the ground. Snow makes wolf tracks and silhouettes easier to spot. Killings are expected to increase now that deer and elk hunting season has started in the state — on October 21 and 23 respectively — there will be more hunters headed into the mountain forests. And wolf deaths will definitely increase radically after the wolf-trapping season begins on November 29 and the winter snows arrive.

The state FWP calls for a policy review after 450 wolves have been reported killed; additional killing will be authorized in 50 wolf allotments. Wolf advocates are skeptical about the viability of this plan and doubt that the FWP even knows how many wolves there really are in Montana, since its wolf population estimates vary so widely. Marc Cooke, founder of Wolves of the Rockies, who has been fighting anti-wolf killing policy for over a decade, asks: “What happens if just by chance, we’re at the low end? How do you make a decision how many wolves to hunt when you don’t know how many wolves you have?”

York argues that a second, potentially serious flaw is that a faction of the state’s wolf hunters and trappers, unhappy with any limits, “will not report their kills. They want all the wolves gone — the only good wolf is a dead wolf.” Obviously unreported deaths won’t be considered as the FWP examines its wolf body count. Repeatedly authorized killing could drive the population down to functional extinction, meaning the few surviving wolves could no longer play a functional role in ecosystems.

Shortly before the September 15 hunting season began, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to petitions from the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity to put wolves back on the endangered species list and thus end wolf hunting, declared that it would review wolf populations in Montana and Idaho for 12 months. In practice, however, the USFWS will review the data collected by the states, it will not independently collect its own data.

York thinks the review is “putting a small bandage on a great big gaping wound. It’s a year-long review. How many wolves will be killed by then?” Cooke sees the USFWS review policy as a way of “kicking the can down the road. I tend to think that in 12 months, the wolves will not be relisted on the endangered species list.” It’s possible the Biden administration, with a 50-50 tie in the senate, will not risk the 2024 re-election chances of Democratic Senator John Tester, who in 2011 sponsored the senate budget bill rider that removed Idaho and Montana wolves from ESA protection and returned wolf management to those states.

Wolves and their advocates face a long siege. “I feel deep sadness and anger,” says York, “but I also feel underestimated.” York won a big victory in Colorado 1996 when she participated in a successful movement to ban most wildlife trapping on public land. After she moved to Montana in 1998, her campaign to pass a ballot initiative in 2014 making trapping on public lands prohibitive failed to gather sufficient signatures. But she hopes to try again in a few years and thinks public opinion will change once trapping season opens and many more wolves are killed. At that time, York thinks Montanans might start thinking “that’s just wrong.”

York also points to the balance of public opinion demonstrated when the FWP asked for public comments on the new laws before the Commissioners voted to implement them. Some 25,000 letters came in, mostly stock letters written up by advocacy groups that people can sign and send, which the FWP ignored. Of about 1,000 real letters from residents, opinion for and against the new laws was split nearly evenly. York’s own count found 66 precent of original letters written by Montanans opposed the war against wolves. Many wolf advocates share her hope: that a backlash against the killing is coming.

Not every wolf supporter agrees. Servheen does not think more wolf deaths will lead to a great awakening. “I know of no evidence that would be the case. I don’t know how we break out from government authorities who are completely immune to the truth and facts.” A Missoula-based outdoor writer named David Stalling, when asked what it would take to end the war against wolves just started laughing. “I don’t know, how do we get out of the Trump era?”

Precisely. Trump started building a wall at the Mexican border to keep immigrants out and make America great again. In early October, with Trump gone from office, Republican governors went down to the Rio Grande to protest the Biden administration and the thousands trying to cross the river. Greg Gianforte was among them. Montana’s firmly part of a national Right wing political culture. National changes will need to occur to make the far-Right’s fears and rages no longer resonate with so many people. Maybe then the wolves will be safe.

Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, helped arrange interviews for this article.

Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that it was legal under the new laws to run wolves down with snowmobiles.

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