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Montana Wildlife Officials Plan To Change The Way They Count Wolves

Gray wolf. File photo.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (PD)
The new counting model uses hunter sightings to help map areas occupied by wolves.

Montana wildlife officials say the way they count wolves is too expensive and falls far short of an actual population estimate, so they plan to switch to a model that uses information gathered from hunters. Conservationists say they want to learn more about the new plan.

Nathan Lance, a wolf management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says, in the early years, wolves were counted by biologists from vehicles or helicopters. They were "literally counting wet noses on the ground," he says.

That wasn’t too hard to do when there were only about 75 wolves in the state. But last year, the minimum count was 477. Lance says he’s in favor of swapping out the boots-on-the-ground style of counting with a model that uses hunter sightings to help map areas occupied by wolves.

"These types of models do give us a better feeling, especially as your population starts to expand in the state," he says. 

Under the old model, Montana primarily relied on wolf counts by its six wolf specialists across the state. But federal funding that helped pay for the specialists' annual counts ended last year. The new model typically puts wolf numbers much higher than the old method of counting each wolf by sight.

"We did know there were more wolves on the ground, always said there were more wolves," says Lance.

Ranchers and hunters in the state have contended for years that the wolf population is too high and threatens livestock and elk populations, and wolves were ultimately delisted by congress in 2011. Defenders of Wildlife promotes wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies.

“We’re still combing through the information released at the commission meeting today, and so we don’t really have a formal position on the model that they are going with at this time," says Erin Edge, a representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

The change is expected to go into effect within the next three years.

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