A gray wolf (Photo by MacNeil Lyons/United States Fish and Wildlife, Midwest Region via Flickr/CC-BY-SA 2.0)
In a meeting to get the public’s comments on proposed changes to a wolf hunting season, opponents outnumbered supporters by a margin of nearly 10-to-1, with many criticizing night-hunting, snaring, baiting traps and some threatening to cancel vacation plans to the Treasure State.
On June 24, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners put out a matrix with different wolf hunting proposals and management tools, including the addition of measures endorsed by the 2021 Legislature, which included much of what drew public criticism on Wednesday night.
The FWP will not make a final decision on the wolf hunting regulations until its Aug. 20 meeting, and will take written public comments through July 26. Comments can be submitted and the meeting can be watched here.
More than 40 people spoke against the measures, many voicing concerns that snaring and trapping was a danger to people and other “non-targeted” animals, like grizzly bear, Canadian Lynx and even household pets.
“These snares and traps threatens my dog’s life and the life and safety of any one who recreates on these public lands,” said Carolyn Hall of Columbia Falls. “You shouldn’t be expected to carry bolt cutters with you.”
Others said wolves were worth more to the state as a tourist draw than as pelts or hides.
“This deservedly gives us a bad name,” said Susie Stevenson Love. “What Montana should be known for is a place that values its wildlife. We are the Treasure State.”
Stephanie Fratt who lives in California but has vacation property in Whitefish and Anaconda said she invested in property here because of wolves and wildlife.
“I can remember going out and hearing the wolves howl,” she said. “I brought more than 50 people to this state because of that. But you don’t want to recreate in places where there are snares and traps. These new proposals to turn Montana into a big-game ranch.”
Deborah Taylor of Colorado said she and her family have booked a vacation to Montana specifically to hear the wolves howl.
“If this goes into effect and the wolves are hunted like this, we will be cancelling our vacation and donating the money to a group leading a lawsuit against the state,” she said.
One of the few voices to speak for the new proposals was Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who carried several of the bills in the Legislature.
He pushed back on the commission, saying the proposals did not go far enough and thwarted “the legislative” intent of the newly minted laws.
“You’re trying to sweep away all the intent. Snaring was intended to be in Montana,” he said.
He said a constitutional measure banning trapping and snaring was defeated by voters, demonstrating a large swath of support.
“They support trapping, and trapping was intended to be on public lands,” Fielder said. “This is not about fair chase, it’s about reducing the wolf population.”
Four people spoke in favor of the new rules.
Glenn Schenavar, of the Foundation for Wildlife Management said the proposed regulations don’t go far enough to reduce the wolf population.
“These do not meet the legislative intent,” Schenavar said. “We’re not here to remove the wolves. We want elk and ungulates to come back in the backcountry of Western Montana.”
Many opponents said that night hunting and bait traps, as well as snaring, went against the doctrine of fair chase and gave hunters a bad reputation.
Others questioned the conclusion of the lawmakers that wolves were having an outsized impact on elk and other ungulates. Several people pointed out that elk numbers throughout the state, like wolf numbers, were above their target numbers.
“You guys are better than this,” said former FWP Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston. “I wish you had the courage to stand up to this legislation. We used to have the gold standard of hunting regulations.”
Michelle Dietrich of Hamilton questioned whether trappers were really going to abide the commissioners’ rules. She said the limits on zones where grizzly and Canadian Lynx live don’t go far enough to protect those endangered species.
“Lynx and grizzly bears don’t know their boundaries and areas,” she said. “I’m sorry if you think a trapper will report a grizzly or lynx getting trapped because he knows that it will trigger a reversal of this hunting season.”
Stephen Capra, of Footloose Montana, a group dedicated to eliminating trapping, said he has concerns about how the subject of trapping and snaring is framed.
“Trapping is sick and abusive,” he said. “The people who do it are mentally sick and we gloss over it in the name of heritage.”
Jennifer Sherry of the Natural Resources Defense Council urged the commission to stand on the side of science.
“Less wolves do not equal more elk. It’s more complex than that,” she said. “As the commission knows a responsible approach requires evidence not anecdotes. There will be serious collateral damage, including to our reputation.”
Others said the new rules and legislation favored big outfitters and rich hunters over the wishes of the majority of Montanans.
As the commission takes public comment and debates the merit of modifying the wolf season and incorporating new laws, the specter of lawsuits hangs over whatever action it takes. An outdoors group in Park County is suing FWP for not following its own wolf hunting guidance, arguing more wolves are required to be harvested. Meanwhile, several other outdoors groups have given the state a notice of intent to sue because of the new proposed provisions.
Some have warned that Montana’s wolf population, which is stable or has just slightly declined, will force the federal government’s hand in relisting the gray wolf as part of the Endangered Species Act.
“We have tried like heck to work with the department and we kept saying over and over again, use sound science, but you’re allowing legislation to dictate the management of wildlife,” said Kim Beam of Wolves of the Rockies. “It’s up to you to take control. My expectations are low. But this is nothing but hatred. All we have left is to see you in court and stand up to this toolbox. Well, it’s not a toolbox, but a tool shed. And enough is enough.”
(Editor’s note: Since comments were taken via Zoom and residents were only required to state their names, not spell them, the Daily Montanan has done its best to verify names and spelling based on the information given)
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