Carbon County takes aim at wolves

Of The Billings Gazette Staff


RED LODGE, MT- As of Thursday, wolves in Carbon County are considered "problem predators" under current federal management.

The county commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that uses their state authority to establish predatory animal control to protect livestock.

The resolution endorses part of the draft state wolf management plan and calls for the federal government to quickly remove wolves' protected status under the Endangered Species Act. Once wolves are placed under state wildlife management, the resolution calls for seeking federal money to reimburse the state for management efforts.

The resolution also takes a jab at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not "acknowledging or notifying Carbon County and its citizens of the presence of wolves, nor are they managing wolves in Carbon County." The commissioners and some of the more than 50 people who attended their meeting at the county courthouse chastised the FWS for not sending a representative to the meeting.

Wolves have "historically proven to be detrimental," according to the resolution, to agriculture production in the county, and the board has received reports of predation, harassment of livestock and damage to fences because of wolves. It further states that wolves will hurt recreational and subsistence hunting in the county.

Although the resolution carries little weight of law, some proponents said it gives the county the right to someday invoke predator regulations - meaning unregulated killing would be allowed.

But opponents of the resolution - and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Harvey Nyberg who said he spoke only to provide information - said the "predator" label is inappropriate. The category, as defined by Montana law, means state policy is to try to eradicate the species, Nybert said.

Some of the opponents of the resolution, who were overwhelmingly outnumbered proponents, felt that the word could derail the delisting effort because the FWS has stated making wolves predators under state management plans is not acceptable.

The biological vs. legal semantics were more clear-cut for Commissioner Dave Davidson.

"If we have predation, we must have a predator," he said.

John Kuchinski, ranch comptroller for Sinclair Oil, was one of the few people to testify about predation - however most of the chatter before the meeting was about who had seen wolves where and what livestock had been lost.

Kuchinski said the ranch has consistently seen wolf kills increase to a high of 110 calves in 2002 and a loss of $120,000. Four of the losses were confirmed wolf kills and the ranch was reimbursed.

"We plead with the commissioners, make 'em a predator," Kuchinski said.

Gary Ferguson said there should be a middle ground on the wolf management issue. Many people think "wolves have a place in the world," he said but also recognize that "agriculture is awfully damn important."

Dave Gaylord, of the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance, urged the commissioners and community to hold off and use the proposed state wolf management plan and its tools to deal with wolf conflicts.

"This is a step in the wrong direction," Gaylord said.

Before wolves are removed from the Endangered Species List, states must have plans in place to guarantee that populations will be sustained and remain viable. Management plans from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming received tentative approval, but not necessarily endorsements, this month by 11 wolf experts who reviewed them for adequacy in maintaining the wolf populations.

Wyoming's proposed management plan has drawn fire because it would classify wolves as trophy game if they're in the national parks or designated wilderness areas, and as predators elsewhere in the state. Predator designation would allow them to be killed any time and by any means.

Even if the FWS decides to propose removing federal protection for wolves, which could happen early next year, there would still be a long, national process that would include more scientific review, more public comment and, many observers predict, litigation.

Carbon County is not the first to adopt a resolution giving wolves a label. Fergus County Commissioners in March adopted a resolution to "declare that wolves are an unacceptable species." In May, Wheatland County commissioners adopted a similar resolution which is meant to "prohibit the presence, introduction or reintroduction of wolves" in the county.

Also in March, Petroleum County commissioners adopted an "unacceptable species" resolution and another titled "wolves deemed unacceptable" that declares wolves "a threat to public health, safety and livelihood." Blaine County commissioners adopted similar resolutions in May.

Under the Petroleum County unacceptable species policy, the board, like Wheatland County, prohibited animals that pose a threat to public health, safety and livelihood. However Blaine County's resolution stated that any person or group that wanted unacceptable species must put a proposal on the ballot in a general election.

Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey said that board is interested in developing a resolution.

Gazette reporter Mike Stark contributed to this article.


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