FWP struggles to convince public to look at the ‘macro’

By Tom Dickson/Montana Outdoors

Last spring, a pair of barn swallows built a nest in Ken McDonald’s garage.

“We couldn’t close the door all summer because they needed to get in and out to feed their four chicks,” says McDonald, head of the Wildlife Division for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “Their death wouldn’t have affected the barn swallow population in the slightest, but I knew those two adults had flown 5,000 miles from their wintering grounds in South America to get here. From a personal standpoint, I just couldn’t do it.”

A grizzly bear and her two cubs approach the carcass of a bison in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, United States, July 6, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

It’s a paradox, then, that the employees of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks who are responsible for managing the state’s wildlife can’t always relate to animals as most people expect. They certainly care about wildlife; that’s their job. But out of necessity they must, in their professional capacity, attend less to individual animals and more to wildlife populations.

That often puts FWP biologists and others in a tough position when someone brings them a sparrow with a broken wing or a seemingly orphaned fawn. “Unfortunately, we often have to tell people we just can’t help,” says McDonald. That can create an impression of a cold-hearted agency indifferent to wildlife—when in fact caring about wildlife, though at a different scale, is the department’s primary concern.

Looking at the big picture
FWP’s responsibility is to provide for the stewardship of Montana’s wildlife. That means ensuring there is enough now and in the future for people to see, hunt, and otherwise enjoy, but not too much to create undue problems for landowners and others. Maintaining that balance is known as wildlife management—the science of manipulating wildlife populations and habitat to maintain a surplus for harvest, reduce private land depredation, recover endangered species, and meet other public needs.

For this to work, FWP must not consider one deer or duck at a time but rather entire populations of hundreds or thousands of deer and ducks.

“It’s about scale,” says McDonald. “The most effective way to allocate our limited resources is to work at the population level.”

Each FWP wildlife biologist is responsible for managing all wildlife species—game and nongame—in an area covering an average of 4,000 square miles. Managing so much wildlife over such a vast area requires large-scale activities, such as monitoring entire populations and protecting critical habitat, that benefit entire populations of multiple species for generations.

This macro approach works. In Montana, most wildlife populations—including large carnivores such as mountain lions, black bears, and wolves—are thriving in large part because biologists take a big-picture perspective. That’s good for wildlife populations and all the individual animals within the populations.

Return to the wild
McDonald says that FWP recognizes both the macro and micro perspectives of wildlife. “Both views are valuable and necessary,” he says. “And we continue to work on incorporating both into our overall management while considering our limited resources.”

Though responsible for managing wildlife on a large scale, FWP Wildlife Division employees understand that people care about the plight of individual animals. And they recognize that a single porcupine or owl, when viewed up close by school kids and others, can inspire wonder and create an interest in the natural world that can develop into a conservation ethic. “Many of us got into this business because of memorable experiences with individual animals,” McDonald says.

Realizing that many Montanans want the department to do more to alleviate animal suffering, FWP’s Wildlife Center in Helena rehabilitates black bear cubs, injured birds of prey, and several other species. Orphaned by hunting or vehicle collisions, young bears are rehabilitated, with minimal human contact, for several months before release back into the wild. Rehabilitated raptors also are released.

Those too injured to survive in the wild are kept as “ambassador birds” for school groups and others to appreciate up close. (To prevent the spread of disease common among crowded wild ungulates, the center does not take in young or wounded elk, deer, or moose. Nor does it accept abundant, common species such as rabbits, squirrels, and songbirds.)

Another way FWP attends to the welfare of individual animals is by carefully regulating hunting. For example, the spring black bear season is structured to reduce the chance that a mother black bear will be shot and her cubs orphaned.

State law makes it illegal to hunt any game animal with a spotlight, from an airplane, using bait, or employing other unfair methods. It’s also illegal to harvest a spotted (young) mountain lion, or hunt elk before August 15 (to prevent orphaning dependent calves).

Responding to pubic concerns about the welfare of wildlife is not just empathy; it’s also a prudent move by an agency responsible to a base of Montanans broader than hunters and anglers. As FWP looks for new sources of funding beyond traditional hunting and fishing license fees to meet growing management demands, it will need to demonstrate its relevance to people who care about wildlife but don’t care to hunt.

Could FWP do more to address the welfare of individual animals? “We could,” says McDonald, “but what we hear from most people is that they want us to continue putting most of our resources into protecting habitat and managing game and nongame populations.” That way, FWP can continue to benefit far more wildlife than it ever could by addressing one animal at a time.

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors. This story is featured in Montana Outdoors November–December 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors.