Interviewer Just give me your full name and title.
Ron Aashiem Ron Aashiem, Chief of Communication for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Interviewer From the delisting of wolves from the endangered species list a good idea and why?
Ron Aashiem We believe delisting the wolf was a great idea. We believe states ought to have the responsibility to manage wildlife, and if you're going to manage other wildlife you need to manage predators, so you bet, we thought it was overdue and glad to have it happen.
Interviewer How many wolves are there in Montana and what kind of numbers would you like to see?
Ron Aashiem We have about… What we do is minimum counts at the end of every year, and we at the end of 2011 estimated about 650 wolves, and we're anticipating, certainly we had more than that. With the pups that were born this year we're well over 700. That estimate may be as much as 30% low. It's not a perfect science. They're sometimes difficult to count. Certainly over 700 wolves.
Interviewer Give me those numbers again and include the number of packs.
Ron Aashiem We've got… We know a minimum, or we did have a minimum at the end of 2011 of at least 650 wolves and about 109 packs, so lots of wolves in Montana. And we're not sure where we want to be at. We're learning as we go. We want to get to balance. We figured this year if we took, had a 60% population harvest, and that would be through hunting, incidental death, take by Wildlife Services for wolves that had been depredating, that we'd be down around 490 wolves. We're not suggesting we're going to get there. That's someplace we'd like to get though and we see if that effects balance the way we would like it to.
Interviewer Are there too many wolves?
Ron Aashiem In our opinion there are too many wolves now, and again the reason is we think there are too many wolves is we're just out of balance. In some places they're having what is an unacceptable effect on other wildlife on the landscape, and in some cases landowner tolerance. We've got livestock producers that are being impact financially, and we want to get a handle on that, and again it's all about balance.
Interviewer Are there too many wolves?
Ron Aashiem We think there are too many wolves. And again, we've talked a lot about it. We want to get to what we would call a balance point, and what that balance point is we're not sure. Last year we talked about getting under 500. That's something we'd still like to do, not suggesting we'll do that with the hunt and with removals, because of livestock depredation and incidental natural causes, but certainly with the impacts we have in some areas on other wildlife populations, ungulates--primarily elk, and some on landowners, domestic livestock, ya we have more wolves than we think leads to a reasonable balance.
Interviewer Why did Montana implement a hunting season?
Ron Aashiem The uniting season in Montana was implemented as the primary management tool to get a handle on numbers, to reduce numbers, and that's the tool we use to manage other wildlife in Montana, and that was really our only tool unless you're going to go to simply eradication from other means by other agencies, damage control, Wildlife Services, which is a federal agency that takes out wolves that are depredating on livestock. Hunters in Montana wanted the opportunity, and that's one of the tools we effectively use to manage other wildlife.
Interviewer Is it working?
Ron Aashiem Is it working? We're taking wolves off the landscape. We took 72 in the first year of our hunt in 2009. We took 166 last year. Again, we don't think that's enough, so we got a bit more aggressive. We're going to include trapping this year. It has been successful in that we've taken some wolves, we've taken some problem wolves, and we've learned a lot.
Interviewer Can states manage wolves better than the federal government?
Ron Aashiem We think so. We think the state can manage wolves better than the federal government, and that's not a knock on the federal government. We manage all other wildlife, and we believe it's reasonable that states ought to be managing a top-of-the-food-chain predator, which impacts other wildlife, so you bet. We think we're the agency within the state that ought to be managing wolves in Montana.
Interviewer Two of Yellowstone's most famous wolves from the Cottonwood Pack were killed in last year's hunt. Should there be a buffer zone?
Ron Aashiem Whether there should be a buffer zone around national parks is a question that we get asked a lot, and it depends who you ask. But we have implemented in those two areas of Montana, north of Yellowstone and south of Glacier, management units where we've limited the take of wolves. And whether or not that's a good idea or a bad idea, that depends on who you ask. But we did that in response to the reduction in wolf numbers in those areas around the park.
Interviewer Why are wolves so controversial?
Ron Aashiem We get asked why wolves are so controversial all of the time, and I think you can… Certainly the biggest reasons that we hear are their impacts on hunting opportunity. That's one of the things that really concerns Montana hunters and hunters from other states that come here to hunt. Their impact on domestic livestock. And then the other side of the coin is there are people that just feel very strongly we don't have enough wolves yet, and frankly they don't believe any wildlife, and in particular wolves, should be managed by lethal control. We certainly respect that opinion. Those are the two polar views. You need to hunt them to manage them, or you need to control them so they're in balance, or you don't. You just let them do their thing and see where the balance ends up, and we take the more proactive approach.
Interviewer You said that in your tenure here that this is the most controversial issue that you've ha to deal with. Can you talk about that?
Ron Aashiem We've had several controversial issues in Montana in my thirty plus years, and that includes bison, endangered fish, black-footed ferrets. With out question, the wolf has been the most contentious. We get thousands of comments when we talk about a wolf-hunting season: a wolf trapping season, any kind of wolf management, the delisting process, the delisting decision. It has just been remarkable, and it's not all bad. We're hearing from a lot of people, and that's what we need to do. We listen. We try to balance what the public wants with what needs to happen on the landscape for us to be successful as far as doing our job.
Interviewer Why do you think the passions run so high?
Ron Aashiem Passions around wildlife in Montana… We hear lots of things about the passion of wildlife in Montana, and it is just a way of life, and people live here because of the wildlife and the opportunities that they provide. They have real strong opinions, and it's something that anyone can have an opinion on and it's just something that is so special to people. And the opinions on both sides of the spectrum are so divided and so, gosh I don't even know how you describe it. The passion is what you called it. It's just remarkable. Why it is, it's because people live here for the reasons that I do. We have lots of wildlife, open space, and I think it's a battle ground on other things as far as the Endangered Species Act, and whether or not that Act is working and whether or not it isn't--those sorts of things.
Interviewer Why do you think the passions run so deep concerning wolves and wolf control?
Ron Aashiem One of the things we see in Montana is this tremendous passion, and the bottom line, people care, and they live here because of the opportunities that Montana has. The other thing that we notice, the wolf is a poster child for lots of groups from outside Montana and within Montana that have seen this as an opportunity to make their case perhaps on the Endangered Species Act, perhaps to raise funds, and it's just a value thing and we respect that. On the other hand, we've got Montanans that are pretty strong willed and they're saying, "Hey, we don't want somebody else telling us what to do. These animals are impacting our livelihood. They're impacting opportunities that we enjoy, such as hunting and observing wildlife, and we don't like that. We don't want any part of it, and we're going to fight for what we think is our right as residents of the state of Montana." On the other hand, people that feel very strongly about managing wildlife, killing wildlife in some cases, it's a very good opportunity for them at the local and national scare to make their point, and they're doing it--in the courts, in the newspaper, the media. It's all over the place, and it gains steam. The momentum is amazing.
Interviewer So what is your response to wolf advocates that oppose hunting?
Ron Aashiem Well our response is pretty simple. We respect their opinions. We don't agree with them. And we believe very strongly that it's about balance, and you can't have a large predator, an effective predator, that has a real high rate of growth that is going to inhabit lots more parts of Montana and have impacts on other wildlife and our livestock community and landowners without managing them. We don't know what the solution is. You can't have a large predator unmanaged. It just doesn't work, and again, that's always been our point. We are very much committed to having a recovered wolf population in Montana. We have a wolf plan that says we will do that. We're committed to it. We're just not going to sit back and let the wolf change the landscape when we manage all over wildlife. So again the big thing is balance. You just got to have predators in balance with their prey.
Interviewer What do you see for the future of managing wolves in the West?
Ron Aashiem What we want is for wolves to be managed like other wildlife are. Right now we have five wolf management specialists. We don't have five elk management specialists, or five deer management specialists. We have biologists that are well-trained, highly competent professionals that manage a wide component of wildlife in their respective areas. We want to have wolf integrated into that system of wildlife management that we have for the rest of Montana. That's our hope. We're getting closer. We're getting closer, and how long that's going to take, we don't know, but we're committed to that and that's our bottom line; manage wolves as we do other wildlife.
Interviewer Can you talk a little bit about the decline of the elk herd?
Ron Aashiem Well that's… The decline of elk populations in Montana has really been the lynchpin of the concern of a lot of the hunting community, and we've had three places: the Bitterroot, the Upper Gallatin, and North of Gardiner, (the northern Yellowstone herd, North of Gardiner). In the late '90s we had over 19,000 elk. We're down now below 5,000. Now that's not all wolves. They've been additive, and they were the single factor that was added to that equation down there, but bear numbers have increased. We had aggressive hunting seasons to get numbers down somewhat, but they're lower than we would like. And that's again, I think you can understand why hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts are saying, "Hey wait a minute. Enough here. We need to do something to help get that elk population back to where we'd like it to be."
Interviewer What's the most common complaint that you hear from hunters?
Ron Aashiem We hear from hunters consistently that we're not being aggressive enough in controlling wolves, and that wolves are taking advantage, or taking opportunity from them. And that they're not suggesting that the wolf doesn't have a place in Montana, what they're suggesting is that they've had an inordinate influence on elk behavior, distribution, and numbers in some areas, and they want us to be more aggressive in managing them like we do other wildlife.
Interviewer What's the most common complaint you hear from ranchers?
Ron Aashiem Ranchers, pretty similar, that we need to be more reactive, more responsive, and that we need to get there quicker, that we need to spend more money with Wildlife Services so that we're more responsive, and again, to be more aggressive in controlling problem wolves.
Interviewer And what about wolf advocates?
Ron Aashiem Wolf advocates suggest that we're being too aggressive, that it's not time to have a hunting or a trapping season and we need to back off and let things just kind of simmer here for a while and then see what happens, and that we're just, in a lot of peoples minds, ruthless and that we're doing nothing but just satisfying that interest in hunters, which again, we don't think that's fair. We're trying to manage wildlife. But they just think we're being too aggressive and that we're not ready for a wolf season.