New increased wolf harvest plan goes out for public comment

FWP would allow 450 wolves, snares, bait trapping and night hunting

By: - June 24, 2021 4:44 pm

A grey wolf (Photo by By Gunner Ries Amphibol CC BY-SA 3.0).

With lawsuits regarding wolf hunting already in court, and news of more lawsuits likely, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission took the first in a series of steps that would serve two purposes — establish a 2021-2022 wolf hunt and comply with the intent of several bills passed by lawmakers earlier this year.

By a 4-to-1 vote Thursday, commissioners proposed a full slate of hunting options to the public, which will have one month for a public comment period beginning Friday. The FWP proposal includes baiting wolf traps, night hunting and snaring — all of which generated significant public pushback during the session and also during the video hearing on Thursday afternoon.

Only two proponents spoke in favor of the full range of wolf “harvesting” options, Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who sponsored House Bills 224 and 225, dealing with trapping wolves, and the Montana Fur Harvesting Association.

More than two dozen opponents from a number of state and national organizations spoke out against killing more wolves, arguing that wolves are more valuable as a tourist attraction than dead. Opponents, who filled more than the 20 minutes of allotted time the commission had set aside, focused on snaring and night hunting, which they argued wasn’t only unnecessary, but also not part of fair hunting. Others begged the commission to follow science.

Fielder said the commission should make no distinction between hunting on private and public land when it comes to the means available to hunters. Commissioners and some staff said the most potential for conflict or danger were snare traps, which could inadvertently trap endangered species, birds and even pets.

The proposals offered by the FWP staff and ultimately approved for public comment included snaring and night hunting, which would be limited to private lands.

“You do not meet the legislative intent, and I have let the director and Gov. Greg Gianforte know that,” Fielder said. “We made no distinction between private and public lands.”

He said the public had already “thoroughly vetted” the bills during legislative testimony.

KC York testified against the trapping and snares, pointing out that trappers have taken mountain lions, elk, grizzly and eight dogs recently by trapping, and that the standards proposed for breakaway neck snares is three times the pressure normally recommended.

“You also don’t include rules for checking every 24 hours, and there’s no public signage,” she said, which would alert the public to possible traps.

Commissioners have a handful of competing agendas to balance, including how many wolves should be taken during the upcoming season, the lawmakers’ mandate to take more wolves, the state’s own management plan, and a fear of triggering a relisting of wolves on the federal Endangered Species Act.

Originally, Commissioner Patrick Byorth made a motion to accept all of the FWP staff proposals, except for night hunting and restricted snaring to private lands. That motion died for lack of a second.

A few moments later, commissioner Brian Cebull made the motion to accept all the possibilities, stating that even though he had concerns about some of them, he believed the public should be given a chance to comment on the widest range of possibilities proposed by the staff.

Montana’s own management plan calls for no fewer than 15 breeding pairs of wolves. That, according to FWP researchers, means that there would need to be a population of between 180 and 200 wolves in the state. Current estimates of wolf populations peg that number at nearly 1,100, or four times the minimum number. FWP’s own estimates show a relatively stable wolf population with 282 wolves being harvested last year.

From 2012-2019, the average wolf harvest in Montana was 242, with a high of 328 harvested in 2020. Since 2011, when the wolf population climbed to nearly 1,400, it has been stable at around 1,100, said Ken McDonald, division manager for FWP.

“It is unknown whether this small decline and stabilization is due to liberalized wolf harvests, wolves halving reached carrying capacity or a combination of these two factors,” a FWP report said.

Outfitters and some hunters have argued that more wolf control is needed, especially around Yellowstone National Park, saying that elk numbers haven’t rebounded because of too many wolves. Others disputed that, saying statewide elk numbers are at historic highs, showing a balance between ungulates and predators.

Shelly Coburn told the commissioners that state numbers of elk in 1995 were reported at 110,000. In 2018, those numbers had risen to 140,000 — proof that wolves had minimal impact.

“There are better, non-lethal means instead of these barbaric solutions,” Coburn said. “When you break up wolf packs, you destabilize them and create more breeding pairs.”

Others who testified called for more science to prove that lowered number of elk or deer were directly due to wolves.

“None of this has any basis in science,” said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “This could be detrimental to multiple species. I urge the commission to use its discretion because it is about the science.”

The wolf hunting regulations will be out for public comment until 5 p.m., July 26, and they include:

  • Increasing the number of wolves to five for every license.
  • Variable trapping seasons to minimize loss in Canadian Lynx and grizzly bear protection zones.
  • Snaring on private lands.
  • Night hunting on private lands statewide.
  • Use of bait hunting or trapping statewide.
  • Increase wolf harvest to 450, approximately 100 more than in 2020.

Many of the groups that testified during the call were part of a group that has sent a notice of intent to sue the state for its wolf management plan.

“This is rogue legislation,” said Kim Beam of Wolves of the Rockies. “We have no choice. You have created it by your plans to attack wolves.”

Marc Cooke, also with Wolves of the Rockies, said that the new proposal was a gift from Montana to the wolves.

“There is a silver lining here,” he said. “This has cast Montana in the spotlight and will take the wolves toward relisting.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.