Bills allowing expanded hunting and snaring of wolves get approved by Gov. Greg Gianforte

The bills are just two of several surrounding the hunting and trapping of wolves making their way through the legislature

Gov. Greg Gianforte, right, takes the oath of office on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, in the Governor's Reception Room of the Montana State Capitol. (Pool photo by Thom Bridge of the Helena Independent Record)

About two months after Gov. Greg Gianforte trapped and dispatched a collared black wolf that had roamed from Yellowstone National Park, he signed into law two bills allowing for expanded opportunities and means to hunt and trap wolves in Montana.

House Bill 224 legalizes the use of snares for trapping wolves in addition to foothold traps. And the bill’s partner, House Bill 225, allows for the extension of the wolf trapping season by four weeks from the first Monday after Thanksgiving until March 15, but still gives the Fish and Wildlife Protection commission power to make some changes to dates for the sake of managing wolf populations.

Thompson Falls Republican Rep. Paul Fielder sponsored both controversial bills. Fielder is a retired wildlife biologist and trapping instructor who’s been a staunch ally of his fellow trappers at the Legislature this session. Along with other bill supporters including some trappers and outfitters, Fielder argued trapping and snaring is essential for wildlife management, specifically when it comes to controlling ungulate populations.

Sen. Bob Brown, another Thompson Falls Republican and the bill’s carrier on the Senate floor, said that more needs to be done to control the population of wolves in Montana.“[Snaring] is just one more method that will possibly help our situation out.”

As of 2019, FWP estimated there are 1,156 wolves in Montana.

When it comes to deer and elk, deer populations vary greatly throughout the state, but Elk populations are above management objectives in most areas of the state, said Greg Lemon, spokesperson for the FWP. “For several years we have been actively working to find ways to lower Elk numbers closer to our management objectives.” He said that predators are only one component to managing wildlife populations.

Critics raised ethical concerns around the snaring of wolves, which they said are cruel and lead to unintentional animal killings — including domesticated animals — and said the combination of the two bills is perilous.

“I can’t imagine anything worse than [snaring] happening to your beloved pet, while you’re out enjoying a beautiful sunny day,” said Butte Democrat Sen. Edie McClafferty.  “I find that snares are a very cruel and inhumane way to hunt … they won’t be just used for wolves. Other animals can be caught: deer, moose, and bears, just to name a few of them.”

Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Helena, said he knows what’s like to experience an unintentional snaring while out hunting. “I may be the only person here that’s had their hunting dog caught in a snare … So there is a real risk, and when we put more snares on the ground you increase that risk for pets.”

Luckily, he said he was able to get the snare off his dog’s snout before it died. He added that there is a risk of unintentionally snaring to moose and grizzly bears.

Touching on HB225, Flowers said the proximity of the extended trapping season to grizzly bear hibernation schedules is dangerous. “I just think it puts more wildlife at risk. I think it puts our efforts to delist grizzly bears at risk.”

Pushing back on the threat of unintentional snarings, Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, said to think of the livestock and game that wolves prey upon.

“If we’re starting to talk about maybe killing a poor wolf, what about some of this other stuff,” he said.

Despite record harvests in 2018 and 2019, the FWP’s 2020 hunting forecast said Northwest Montana has “abundant wolf numbers.” And in order to successfully hunt them, “scouting and understanding wolf behavior is important.”

Snares are designed to asphyxiate an animal by the neck and are a cheaper and more durable alternative to footholds, which are clunky and less effective, Fielder said during a committee hearing on the bills. Trappers were allowed to use snares for hunting small animals like coyotes, badgers, and raccoons before they were permitted for wolves.

The snaring of wolves is allowed in adjacent jurisdictions to Montana like Idaho, Wyoming, and British Columbia. But McClafferty said just because other states are doing it, doesn’t make it right.

“Let’s be our own state, a state that does not need to make the same mistakes as other states … let’s lead the way for wildlife management,” she said.

Gianforte’s Feb. 15 wolf harvest at the private ranch of Richard E. Smith — director of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group and a donor to the governor’s campaign —  made news after it was reported by the Mountain West News Bureau that the GOP Governor was issued a warning for trapping a wolf without taking the required educational class.

Along with the ethical concerns, opponents also argued HB224 an overstep into FWP operations — a point Great Falls Democrat Sen. Tom Jacobson argued on the floor.

“I’m not opposed necessarily to snaring .. but again, here we go, codifying what the commission has the ability and we’ve entrusted them to do .. let’s let the commission decide for themselves,” he said during floor debate on HB224.

Several other controversial hunting bills are making their way through the legislature.

Senate Bill B314, directs FWP that it “shall establish by rule hunting and trapping seasons for wolves with the intent to reduce the wolf population in this state to a sustainable level, but not less than the number of wolves necessary to 15 support at least 15 breeding pairs.” The bill also allows more harvesting per an individual license, baiting within 30-feet of a trap, and the hunting of wolves on private lands outside of daylight hours with the use of artificial light or scope.

Another bill, SB 267 would reimburse hunters for expenses involved in hunting or trapping a wolf, which have called a bounty bill. The bill, sponsored by Brown, has passed through the legislature and is waiting for Gianforte’s signature.

These bills, combined with HB224 and 225, set a bad precedent for Montana, according to a letter sent to Gianforte by the Montana Wildlife Federation. “These are not based on science and facts, have no sound management need, and are damaging to Montana’s reputation as a leader in wildlife conservation,” the letter reads.