Politics

Predator Politics

Wolves are back in Montana, and many of the citizens are upset about it. Carolyn Sime has the task of calming people down.Carolyn Sime had a stress-free job in the Montana backcountry that any lover of the outdoors would envy.
by | November 2004

Wolves are back in Montana, and many of the citizens are upset about it. Carolyn Sime has the task of calming people down.Carolyn Sime had a stress-free job in the Montana backcountry that any lover of the outdoors would envy. After getting a biology degree, she spent 13 years working for the state's Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department, roaming the Whitefish Mountains to study the lives and habits of whitetail deer.

This summer, however, the 39-year-old Sime heeded a more contentious call of the wild. The Montana agency put her in charge of managing the wolf population that the federal government brought back to the state 10 years ago as an endangered species. Instead of quietly researching deer population trends, some days she'll be going face to face with hard-bitten ranchers and disgruntled game hunters who detest wolves as marauding, evil killers.

Seventy years ago, the ancestors of those ranchers helped exterminate the last wolfpacks from the northern Rockies. But in the 1980s, Canadian wolves crossed the border into Montana's Glacier National Park, and then the U.S. Interior Department reintroduced others to Yellowstone National Park, just across the Wyoming line, and to Idaho's mountainous wilderness. Under federal protection, the predators spread quickly to reoccupy prime habitat in Montana's mountain ranges and river valleys.

"The wolves are back, and the question is 'what now?'" Sime says. Her answer is that "that's where Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks comes in." The U.S. Interior Department wants to take resurgent wolves off the endangered species list and trust state wildlife agencies to protect them. State game managers already enforce hunting regulations designed to preserve mountain lions, black bear, wolverines and other carnivores. A similar approach could be implemented for the resurgent wolves.

But in small Rocky Mountain towns, stockmen and outfitters vilify federal wildlife biologists, contending they've been standing by while wolf packs slaughter livestock and decimate the region's trophy elk herds. Once wolves are taken off the federal endangered list, they're hoping state game managers will give the go-ahead to start tracking them down with an old-time frontier vengeance. The Wyoming Legislature agrees, and it revised state game laws earlier this year to let hunters and ranchers shoot wolves on sight outside national park and wilderness boundaries.

Interior has responded to Wyoming's stand by putting delisting on hold, but it's still giving Sime's agency day-to-day authority for managing wolves within Montana's boundaries. Montana put together a plan for maintaining 15 packs in the state, and Sime enlisted state wildlife managers who live and work in communities near Yellowstone and Glacier to help sell it to their neighbors. Most state wildlife managers hunt and fish in their spare time, and some grumble themselves that wolves are killing too many of Montana's big-game animals. But in community meetings, burly game wardens, some with pistols still strapped to their hips, armed themselves with felt- tipped markers to record local residents' comments and complaints about the plan on giant pads of paper.

David Gaillard, a Bozeman environmentalist, expects state agency professionals will "follow up on their responsibility to keep wolves around." Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has a reputation for backing up its staff when legislators, county commissioners, and congressional delegations put them in political crossfire. Ed Bangs, the chief federal wolf biologist in the Rocky Mountains, figures "the state will have the spine to stand up to the pressure."

Sime hunts elk and deer, and she recognizes she'll run into a belligerent reception from time to time trying to convince ranchers and hunters that wolves are back to stay. "The feds had a very tough job to do," she says, "People will probably be saying the same things about me five years from now, you watch."

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