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Saving Four Wolves

by Rick Lamplugh
Aug. 15, 2016

On a fine spring evening a few days after we followed the 8-Mile pack around, Mary, Leo, and I walk through the double doors of Gardiner School. We are here to attend a meeting about the proposal to increase the quota in Montana Wolf Hunting Unit 313 from two wolves to six. I wish some of the 8-Mile wolves could attend; this political process could save their lives and the lives of other Yellowstone wolves. 

Unit 313 borders Yellowstone and Gardiner. A hungry wolf, following prey out of the park, does not know where the border line is. But hunters know where the line is, and when wolves will likely cross it.  

Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks biologists recommend the number of wolves that hunters can kill in Unit 313. The public—Montanans and out-of-staters—comments on that recommendation. Ultimately, the Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners vote and decide a quota—the recommended one or some variation.  

If the process of setting the quota sounds straightforward, it isn’t. But the end result is: wolves are killed. 

Killing a single wolf that happens to be an alpha can destroy that alpha’s pack. That’s what happened when 06—that famous Lamar Canyon alpha—was shot in a Wyoming wolf hunt. Her alpha male quickly left the Lamar Valley in search of a new mate. The rest of her pack splintered. Given this, keeping the quota at two wolves instead of six—can amount to saving four wolf packs. That’s worth fighting for. 

Since we are a few minutes early for the meeting, we sit in the hall near the principal’s office and wait for others to arrive. As they do, we hug or shake hands, happy to see familiar and supportive faces. 

When the meeting time nears, we walk into the K-12 school’s multipurpose room, abuzz with conversation. At the front of the room behind three long folding tables arranged end to end sit six staff from Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (MFWP). Sam Sheppard, a regional supervisor, anchors one end. To his left sits an administrative person, preparing to take notes on a laptop, and four MFWP biologists. 

Thirty or so attendees sit at three long rows of school cafeteria tables. Leo, Mary, and I take a seat in the front row. In that row, but much closer to the door sits one of our county commissioners. He commented at a previous public meeting on the quota: increase it to six. 

In the front and middle row of tables sit mostly folks who don’t want the quota raised. Many are Gardiner residents with economic as well as personal reasons for protecting wolves. Some own businesses that depend on ecotourism. Some are Yellowstone guides with clients that want to see live wolves. As Doug, a local who sells spotting scopes to wolf watchers, says, no one buys a scope to watch dead wolves. A number of wolf watchers sit at the middle table. Some have travelled here from out-of-state. I admire that they have taken time from their park visit to speak for wolves. 

At the back row of tables sit mostly those who want the quota increased. Though I recognize only a couple, I assume that most are Gardiner residents. I make eye contact and nod at a few. One looks away. A couple nod back. The chance to look anti-wolf folks in the eyes is one big difference between advocacy here in Gardiner and in Oregon, where I wrote online posts, sent emails and letters, and signed petitions. Another big difference: here in Gardiner, I can also look wolves in the eyes, as I recently did with the 8-Mile pack. 

Behind the back row, leaning against the edge of the raised stage with its curtains closed, stands an armed county sheriff. Another armed officer is beside him.  Are they here to head off trouble, or out of personal interest? 

No law enforcement attended the previous public meeting in May on raising the quota. Mary and I—and a number of other Gardiner residents in this room tonight—made the 3-hour round-trip to the MFWP office in Bozeman. At the front of the large meeting room, a TV showed split-screen images of other MFWP meeting rooms in Montana. A small camera positioned near the TV pointed at a podium where commenters could be seen and heard by the Fish and Wildlife commissioners sitting in Helena. I silently applauded MFWP for using technology to make it easy for Montanans to meet virtually. If we had had to drive from Gardiner to Helena to be heard, we would have faced a 6-hour round-trip. 

Before that May meeting, I had spoken with Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies. His organization has worked tirelessly and successfully to reduce the quota in Unit 313. Marc had told me that one Fish and Wildlife commissioner had swung two other commissioners to his side to reject the proposal to kill six wolves. Those three commissioners needed wolf advocates to show up, speak out, and support that contentious decision. With rallying emails from Gardiner’s Bear Creek Council, Wolves of the Rockies, and a number of other conservation organizations, the commissioners got the needed support and rejected the proposal. 

Walking out of the Bozeman meeting room in May, I felt we had won a victory, had saved four wolves, maybe four packs. But I’m new to Montana and didn’t understand the process yet.  

That meeting did not end the process, it started the public comment period on how many wolves to kill.  Once that comment period ends, MFWP biologists would read all the comments and decide whether to submit another quota proposal to the commissioners. Finally, in July, the commissioners would vote again. That vote would be final. 

As we sit tonight at cafeteria tables in Gardiner School, we’re a long way from saving four wolves.  

Behind and to the left of the back row, on the edge of the stage, feet dangling, sits Dan Vermillion, chair of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. At that May meeting, he was the only commissioner who voted to increase the quota from two to six. Politically savvy wolf advocates figure he is maneuvering behind the scenes to change some or all of those three votes. I wonder why he is here tonight. To signal the MFWP staff and other commissioners that he is not going to be a pushover? To assess the local level of feeling for and against killing wolves so he can change his vote? To simply fulfill his role as chairman? 

At the front of the room, Sam Sheppard rises from his seat and walks in front of and leans against the staffer table. He greets us and says that his staff is here to listen to comments, not to have back-and-forth discussions with us. He asks that we respect each other 

A man in the back row raises his hand and says with a hint of frustration, “So does that mean we can’t ask questions?”  

Sheppard, maintaining his even tone, says that we can ask questions but the meeting will not become a back and forth between staffers and attendees. Then he opens the meeting for public comment. 

After two people comment, one for and one against increasing the quota, Bonnie, a representative of the Sierra Club says, “People come from all over the world for a once in a lifetime chance to see a wolf in the wild and that chance is undeniably reduced with hunting on the park borders, as we saw in a recent study.” She adds that last year hunters and trappers killed more than 200 wolves in Montana. 

 A man in the back row stands and says he was born and raised in Gardiner. His family has worked as outfitters his entire life. He believes that the fact that people come to Gardiner to see wolves in Yellowstone “should not dictate what we do with Montana wolves in the 313 area.”  He seems to want to portray this controversy as the federal government bullying the state of Montana. 

Sheppard, though he said there would be no back and forth, responds, “This is Montana. This is not Yellowstone National Park north.” He explains that the park operates on a preservation model—wolves aren’t hunted in Yellowstone. Montana, on the other hand, uses a conservation model—wolves are hunted. I feel encouraged when he adds that there is room within Montana’s model for what he calls “social values” such as reducing the number of wolves killed in Unit 313. 

A man from the back row says, “If wolves stay in the park, we won’t effect them at all.”

“The fact of the matter,” replies Sheppard, “is that animals don't recognize political boundaries. This species (wolves) is linked to the elk. That is their primary grocery and they’re going to follow the groceries.” 

A Yellowstone guide explains how the killing of one wolf effected her income: she lost more than $2,000 in tips after 06 was shot. Her comment riles the back row and generates a few minutes of back and forth until Sheppard puts both hands into the air and quiets the room. “This,” he repeats, “is not going to be a back and forth.”  

From the back row a man says angrily, “So we can’t ask questions?” 

Sheppard wraps both arms across his chest and replies firmly, “There is not going to be dialogue going back and forth among the audience.” 

The room goes quiet except for the rustle of three members of the anti-wolf congregation getting up and huffing out of the room. After they depart,  A back-row man who spoke before breaks the silence with a diatribe against the Sierra Club’s political influence. He sounds as if he wants to frame this as the Sierra Club overpowering Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.  

When he finishes, Ilona, a wolf advocate and chairperson of the Bear Creek Council’s wolf committee, asks Sheppard, “Can we allow everyone in this room to make their first comment before we go to second comments?”  

“That’s fair enough,” says Sheppard with a nod. 

Doug asks Sheppard if we can have a simple show of hands of how many people support the two quota as opposed to six.  

Sheppard shakes his head and says, “I value everyone’s comments, but what I’ve found in the past is that if there is an overwhelming majority, that may silence some people.” He pauses and adds that the staff wants “to hear what people think and have to say.” 

From the back row someone yells, “Shoot the wolves!” This prompts laughter in the back row and concerned looks from the middle and front rows. 

Linda, co-owner of a local ecotourism business, stands and says that she too suffered financially after 06 was shot. Her business’ income was off for two years. 

 Then Mary stands, turns toward Commissioner Vermillion, smiles, and says, “I’d like to thank the commissioners for making the decision to retain the two-wolf quota for 313, though my preference would be to reduce the quota to zero.” 

After she finishes and sits down, I feel like applauding her statement of conscience. The reality under Montana law is that the quota cannot be zero. In fact, there are just three small units in the state that have quotas at all. Unit 313 and one other border Yellowstone. The third small unit borders Glacier National Park. Anywhere else in Montana the combined maximum hunting and trapping bag limit is five wolves per person during the 2016-17 season. 

.After a couple more people speak, I stand and encourage the MFWP biologists to establish a management goal that states that protecting tourism and research is a priority for setting wolf quotas near Yellowstone and Glacier. This is an idea that I picked up from Ilona in one of our many conversations about wolf management.    

Nathan, chairperson of the Bear Creek Council and co-owner with Linda of an ecotourism business, stands and says that he too was raised in Gardiner. He graduated from the Gardiner School. Having any wolves killed in 313 “is like Russian roulette. You don’t know if the wolf that is killed is one that is going to be known to wolf watchers and tourists.” He recalls a boycott of some Gardiner businesses after 06 was killed. 

Nathan’s comments draw an opposing response from a man in the back row. “There’s probably a lot of folks who weren't here or who don’t remember that once upon a time Gardiner was a much more thriving town that was busy all summer, all fall, and a good portion of the winter.” The man looks around the room and adds, “There are a lot of us who have lost economic stability due to the lack of management (of wolves)…”  

 Another back-row member stands and announces that he represents a statewide hunting organization. In a patronizing tone he says, “The wolves have been in saturation for years. We’re watching our ungulate population be absolutely destroyed. Watchable wildlife doesn’t involve just wolves and grizzly bears, folks. People come to see all aspects of it.” 

As the comments continue, it’s clear to me that the anti-wolf and pro-wolf sides share little common ground.  

Sheppard, who had taken his seat, stands again and walks close to the front row of attendees. He stops and looks around, seems to be composing himself. Then he nods as if giving himself permission to speak. “Across the state of Montana, wolves are an accepted part of the landscape, much more so than here. I’m going to ask you to think about this: Why is poaching so much greater here in the Gardiner basin than anywhere else in the state? That’s a fact.” He pauses to let that shocker sink in. “I would ask all of you in this room, on both sides of this issue, to look inside yourself and answer that question.” 

Shauna, a Yellowstone guide, asks Sheppard, “Does that imply that tolerance is lower here or is that because we know our wolves and we know when they go missing?” 

Sheppard nods his head thoughtfully, then divulges that he has lived and worked as a wildlife agent in other communities including McCall, Idaho (a state infamous for hunting and poaching wolves). He says that people in these other locales could not poach any wildlife without someone calling to tell him about it. Then he reveals that no one calls him to report poaching in Gardiner.

I can feel the discomfort in the room as Gardiner residents, both for and against wolves, try to swallow our town’s new title of Montana’s top wolf-poaching area.    

For a few more minutes, both sides comment, including Leo who asks to keep the quota at two. Finally Sheppard wraps up the meeting by saying that the public comment period will end soon. We can submit a written comment even if we spoke tonight.  

As Leo, Mary, and I leave the heat of the meeting and step into the cool of the evening, we vow to submit written comments. We hope that the commissioners will vote in July as they did in May and keep the quota at two wolves. But, who knows? 

A few weeks later, I receive an email from Nathan, alerting Bear Creek Council members that MFWP biologists have read all the comments, including many from out-of-staters. The biologists have submitted yet another proposal. This one recommends increasing the kill from two to four wolves in Unit 313. The commissioners will vote on the new proposal in three days. Nathan urges us to write the commissioners immediately and ask them to stick with their original vote.  

Staring at the email, I worry that the commissioners might accept the new proposal as a way of splitting the difference between those who want to save wolves and those who want to shoot wolves. I stop what I was doing and send an email to each of the commissioners.  

Nathan’s alert generated a strong response. Not only did many Bear Creek Council members email the four commissioners, Ilona and Nathan called and spoke with some of them.  

A few days later, I check my email and find one from Ilona with a subject line that proclaims: “FWP Commissioners Voted for 2 Wolf Quota in 313.” I release a quiet howl of delight and close the laptop. I think about the valuable time and energy that so many busy people invested on behalf of wolves. In the end, the teamwork paid off. Like the wolves we strive to protect, working as a pack is critical. Knowing that four wolves are safe for another year, I’m glad to be a member of this pack. 

I welcome your comments and feedback. Email me at ricklamplugh@gmail.com 

Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.


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