Hunting Predators in Montana

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That’s the howl of 926f, otherwise known as Spitfire. She was an alpha female wolf in the Lamar

valley pack of Yellowstone National Park. Jacob Job made these recordings, he is a natural

sounds recordist working for the Sound and Light Ecology Team at Colorado State University.

Spitfire was popular with tourists and photographers as one of the most frequently observed

wolves in Yellowstone.

Wolves were reintroduced into the park in the 1990’s and they quickly repopulated the area.

Now, there are around 100 wolves in 10 packs in Yellowstone and they have spread to much of

the Northern Rockies.

Spitfire was killed in November near Cooke city, in a legal hunt just outside the park. Wolves

were once protected outside of the park but were taken off the list of federally protected

species and their management handed over to the states in 2017. Montana has a limited permit

process, but in Wyoming they can be killed by virtually any means, any time, without limit.

Montana has permitted hunting of wolves since 2011, and a few hundred are killed each year.

In Montana, wolf licenses can be bought over the counter for $19. Hunters can take up to 5

wolves in a season, that generally lasts from mid-September until mid-March. Most of the state

has an open season on wolves. There are three management units with quotas, once the quota

has been reached the unit is closed. These units are bordering Glacier and Yellowstone, and as

of today one is closed, the unit where Spifire was killed, and two are still open along with the

rest of the state. These quotas were a compromise reached when some demanded a buffer

zone around the parks, invisible boundaries where wolves go from protected to hunted. Wolves

in the parks are often habituated to humans and do not have the fear instinct that makes wilder

wolves harder to hunt.

Wolves aren’t the only predators that can be hunted in Montana. Big cats like bobcats and

mountain lions are regulated similarly to wolves, but others are not. Montana statute classifies

predators as coyote, weasel, skunk, and civet cat, and predator shooting is not regulated by

federal or state law.

A couple weeks ago in Dillon there was a coyote derby, a hunting competition for the most or

biggest kills over the course of a weekend. The contest was sponsored by Rocky Mountain

Supply and organized by their employee Weston Basso.

I had a chance to talk to Weston about the derby, and I asked him how the Derby went.

WB: “So we had 46 teams, three or four of which were singles, single man teams, the rest were

two man teams. Between the two days we had 50 coyotes. The winning team had seven

coyotes between the two days.”

With unlimited methods, I asked Weston about some of the unique techniques hunters were


WB: “I do know there was some spotlighting going on. Other than that it was just hand calls and

electronic coyote calls.”

I asked Weston if population control was a goal of the derby, and if problem coyotes were

targeted specifically.

WB: “I do know some of the ranchers gave permission to hunters, to hunt the coyotes that

were being an issue on their property. But I do know a lot of the coyotes were taken out of

general public lands, out in the mountains. I don’t want to say to control the population, ‘cause

getting the coyote numbers to where they’re not going to have an environmental impact on

livestock or wildlife, that’s just too hard to say. We don’t put on this contest just to go out and

kill coyotes, we put on this contest because we like seeing everyone in the community together,

to gather around, and go out and have some fun.”

Many of the contestants and supporters cite the protection of livestock as the justification for

the killing, but Weston was clear, this is more of a social event that a tool for population


And the science backs that up. In fact, studies have shown how packs disrupted by lethal

control actually increase in number because of how pack dynamics work. Packs are led by a

breeding pair. If one or both of those coyotes is killed, the pack can split up, generating several

breeding pairs, resulting in an uptick in the population. The same phenomenon occurs for


A study from 2014 looked at 25 years of data on wolf-livestock predation. It showed that the

odds of livestock depredations increased 4% for sheep and about 5% for cattle with increased

wolf control. That is, for each wolf killed there was a 4% greater likelihood for a wolf to kill a

sheep. This trend continues up until a point where the population is decimated, about a 25%

reduction in wolf population, which of course does result in fewer livestock losses.

During the 2016-2017 hunting season Montana FWP reported 163 wolves taken by hunters and

83 taken by trappers for a total of 246 wolves. In 2016 52 Montana cattle were killed by wolves.

The Montana Livestock Loss Board addresses the economic impacts of wolf predation by

providing financial reimbursement to producers for their losses. They also help reduce losses by

forming management strategies. In 2016 they paid out $59,578, covering the fair market value

for the livestock lost.

Idaho has also seen significant numbers, with 700 cattle killed since 2009, which works out to

about 77 per year. To put that in perspective, there are about 2.6 million head of livestock in

Idaho, so wolves kill about 0.005%. But you’d think they were threatening the very existence of

livestock and wildlife, based on some responses. Bumper stickers with wolves in the cross hairs

are common, with “smoke a pack a day” written beside it. Even conservation group the Rocky

Mountain Elk foundation has joined the frenzy, recently offered a $1000 per wolf bounty in


So, with most of the evidence showing that lethal control does not prevent livestock predation,

how do we cohabitate with these predators in our backyards? It’s easy to see how one might

jump to the conclusion that controlling their population is the answer. It is counter-intuitive,

especially in a ranching community like Dillon, that killing them does not help, and might

exacerbate the situation. As wolf populations stabilize, and we encroach further and further

into wolf and coyote habitat, confrontations are bound to occur. The best strategy seems to be

using evidence-based science to guide us as we form management plans and to find ways to

coexist with these native canines.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF