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Two gray wolves in northwestern Montana are captured on camera by wildlife biologists. (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

KALISPELL, Montana — The gray wolf population is robust enough in Montana that officials are preparing to extend hunting season on the state’s most controversial animals and allow snare traps that grab them by the neck.

And in next-door Idaho, where hunting and trapping season is pretty much year-round, hunters can use night-vision goggles and ATVs to chase down gray wolves in the dark on private land. To keep that state’s 1,500 wolf population steady, about 40% are killed off each year through hunting and trapping, and by the Idaho Fish and Game in retaliation for livestock attacks.

Both northern states reintroduced wolves after they had been gone for decades. Their advice to Colorado as it prepares for a voter-approved reintroduction of the gray wolf is the same: Expect the wolf population to repopulate quickly, as long as the new predators of the forest have the right habitat with plenty of deer, elk and moose to eat.

“I’m guessing that once wolves get established there, they will take off and do pretty darn well,” said Neil Anderson, a wildlife manager for the northwest region of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “They will take off pretty quickly, is my guess.” 

Nature is already proving the case.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed last year that a gray wolf had roamed into the northwest corner of the state from a Wyoming pack near Yellowstone National Park. Then wildlife officials announced the wolf had a mate. And last week, CPW announced that the collared wolves known as John and Jane now have six pups. 

It’s Colorado’s first litter of gray wolves since the animals went extinct in the state in the 1940s because of hunting and trapping.

Colorado voters approved a ballot measure in November that directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife to place about 10 wolves a year into Western Slope forests starting in 2023. The agency is holding informational meetings across Colorado, from Steamboat Springs to Alamosa to Sterling, as it develops a plan to restore and manage the gray wolf population. Officials are also collecting comments via an online form.

Biggest concern about snare traps are injuries or death of dogs

Montana has more than 1,100 wolves, far more than the minimum population state wildlife officials identified when they took over management of the animals in 2010. The recovery plan called for 15 breeding pairs, identified as mates with at least two surviving pups, and about 150 wolves in total. 

“We are easily 10 times that number,” Anderson said, noting that in northwest Montana, there are about 80 wolf packs. 

Montana has had “fairly liberal” hunting seasons for the past few years, yet the population has remained steady, which is why lawmakers this year passed a handful of bills aimed at decreasing the population. “What you are seeing right now in Montana is a pushback,” Anderson said. “Sportsmen and landowners wanted to see fewer wolves on the landscape.”

A host of proposals are in the works: expanding the hunting season, hunting at night, and allowing hunters to use snares that strangle the animals. The legislation was forwarded to fish and wildlife officials tasked with laying out the details. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has no official position on the bills, and agency representatives only provided information to lawmakers. 

A gray wolf in northwestern Montana howls just outside a den at the base of a tree in this time-stamped surveillance photo. (Provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

About 240 wolves per year were hunted or otherwise killed in Montana on average over the past decade, but that number climbed to 328 during the 2020 hunting season, which could drop the overall population to under 1,000, according to state wildlife documents. The state’s per-person bag limit is five, although just six people killed that many wolves in 2020.

Under current law, trappers trying to catch wolves, often for their pelts, must get the animal to step on a trap that is about 6 to 8 inches in diameter. The trap catches them by the foot and isn’t immediately deadly. Snaring is cheaper, requires less skill and is lethal. Snare traps squeeze down on the animal’s neck — the harder they pull away, the harder the trap squeezes.

Wildlife officials’ biggest concern about snare traps is that they could injure or kill dogs, Anderson said.  

Wolves hunt moose better than bears or lions

Wolves are likely to succeed in Colorado because the state’s forests and sources of prey are similar to Montana’s, Anderson said. Wolves are more successful than bears and mountain lions at taking down moose because they work together as a pack, he said. Colorado has nearly 3,000 moose, enough that Parks and Wildlife allows hunting in certain areas. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists met with Montana wolf experts even before Colorado voters narrowly passed the ballot initiative last November directing the state agency to reintroduce the gray wolf to Colorado. And one of Montana’s best-known wolf biologists, Diane Boyd, who retired from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, gave a talk in Colorado as part of wildlife officials’ public information phase on the reintroduction plan. Colorado is also consulting with wolf biologists in Idaho, Oregon, California, Wyoming, Washington, New Mexico and Arizona, the agency said.

Wolves are already a hot-button issue in Colorado, where rural counties voted against the reintroduction plan but were outnumbered by voters in Denver and other cities that are unlikely to get any of the new wolves. One Republican lawmaker introduced a measure this year — which was swiftly defeated — that would have required wildlife officials to reintroduce wolves only in the counties where a majority of voters supported the reintroduction. 

Last month, a CPW manager was reinstated after an investigation into allegations that he worked behind the scenes to try to sabotage the wolf reintroduction process. 

A cow moose and calf cross a road in Park County, Colorado, on August 7, 2019. ( Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The controversy is likely to continue for decades, especially if reintroduction is as successful in Colorado as it was in other states. 

“Wolves, more than any other species, seem to have folks at extreme opposite ends of the spectrum,” Anderson said. “They’re probably more controversial than any other species we manage. More controversial than grizzly bears. We have had grizzly bears in the state for everybody’s lifetimes.” But Montana’s older residents grew up without wolves. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, still in the beginning stages of creating its recovery plan, said there is “currently no planning” for a hunting season on wolves, but that the topic is likely to become part of the statewide discussion.

And how the natural migration of the wolves from Wyoming will affect the reintroduction plan is unclear, but Gov. Jared Polis noted that the new litter of pups will have “plenty of potential mates” when Colorado transplants more gray wolves, also called timber wolves, to the state. CPW spokeswoman Lauren Truitt said the naturally migrating wolves “are not a determining factor for our effort to implement the law.”

“The migrating wolves and pups do allow us to learn about wolf behavior while also planning for the reintroduction of a healthy and genetically diverse population of additional wolves,” she said.

Anderson, from Montana, suggested lots of dialogue as Colorado writes its reintroduction plan. 

“The more people can work together, the better it will be for all wildlife, including wolves,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of opinions out there and they are all valid.”

Wolves, which were killed off in Montana decades ago with the last wolves seen in Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s, began naturally repopulating the northwest part of the state in the 1980s, migrating from Canada. Then in 1995 and 1996, wildlife biologists reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone in southwest Montana. Both populations spread, stretching the western half of the state. 

“We got extremely fast growth”

Wolves were reintroduced in Idaho in 1994 and 1995, when wildlife officials transplanted packs from Canada. “We expected slow, steady growth and we got extremely fast growth,” said Roger Phillips, public information supervisor for the Idaho Fish and Game. 

Idaho opened its first hunting season on wolves in 2010, selling 31,000 wolf tags resulting in 188 kills. The state attempted to run a hunting season a year earlier, but a court battle initiated by a group opposed to the plan resulted in an injunction and a yearlong delay. 

Idaho’s hunting season on wolves has grown increasingly more liberal over the past decade. Trapping was allowed soon after hunting. And today, hunting and trapping “season” is year-round on private land. Night hunting is allowed, on private land with a permit. Snare traps are allowed. There is no longer a bag limit, but tags are required: $13.75 each for Idaho residents and $31.75 for nonresidents.

Last year, 583 wolves were killed through hunting, trapping and “control actions” when wolves killed livestock, Phillips said. Idaho has about 1,500 wolves in peak season, in the summer after new pups are born, but that drops down to 900 or 1,000 after the busiest season of hunting and trapping in the fall.

“Our rule of thumb is you’ve got to remove 40% per year just to maintain a population,” Phillips said. 

Wildlife officials responsible for managing wolves please almost no one, he said.

“No matter how many you have or how few you have, you’ve got people on one side that will say that there are too many and the other side will say there are too few,” he said. “Wolves hadn’t been in this state for many, many generations.

“A lot of what we are doing here recently is to reduce the conflict with wolves.”

Wolves recolonized other states naturally

In some states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, wolves were not reintroduced but migrated naturally across state lines.

Federal protections for wolves were lifted in January, which resulted in Wisconsin’s first hunting season on the animals. About 300 wolves have been killed in the state since it was announced the animal was being taken off the endangered and threatened species list, either through the February hunt or by illegal poaching, according to a recent study from a University of Wisconsin researcher. 

The state had about 1,000 wolves in 2020. Wisconsin’s winter hunt ended early after hunters killed 218 wolves in about three days, roughly 100 more wolves than wildlife managers had planned. University researchers say about 100 more wolves were killed by poachers. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff maintain watch over a gray wolf after it was tranquilized and fitted with a GPS collar. The wolf migrated to Colorado from Wyoming’s Snake River Pack. (Handout)

Other states, including Michigan and Minnesota, are also considering wolf hunts. 

A separate University of Wisconsin Madison study found that as the wolf population has increased, the number of car crashes involving deer has declined. 

When wolves colonize a county, deer-vehicle crashes drop by about 24%, according to the findings published in May in the National Academy of Sciences.

Research in Yellowstone National Park has found that a growing wolf population has thinned out sick elk, creating more resilient herds. Wolves on average kill 22 ungulates apiece per year, according to the park. 

Colorado has an abundance of prey for wolves, including 430,000 mule deer and 280,000 elk, according to Colorado State University, so reintroduction of wolves is not likely to have a major impact on big-game hunting statewide. But, just as has happened in Montana, pockets of Colorado could see decreased elk, moose and deer if there is a high, localized concentration of wolves.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...