FWP adopts preliminary wolf hunting regulations, including trapping, snaring, baiting

Commission narrowly approves controversial measures, which goes to the public for comment

By: - August 20, 2021 6:00 pm

Photo of a wolf (Photo via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

In a meeting replete with tears, legal threats, and accusations of political puppeteering, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission forwarded a proposal to increase the wolf harvest in Montana, including using the controversial techniques such as snaring, baiting and night hunting.

The proposal, brought by Commissioner Patrick Tabor, was narrowly approved, with commissioners Pat Byorth and KC Walsh dissenting. The 3-2 vote was closer than public opinion during the public hearing in June, public comments gathered and the nearly two-hour session of comments on Friday at the Capitol.

Public sentiment during the meeting ran consistent with the previous meetings, with more than three-quarters of the commenters speaking out against expanding the wolf hunt using the more controversial tools, and opponents accusing the commission of not listening to the public or science and being beholden to special interest groups and Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Friday’s proposal will now go back to the public for additional comments before the commission will make a final decision on the wolf hunting season. As the meeting was happening Friday, the Biden administration announced that it would not reverse a Trump-era policy of delisting wolves in the lower 48 states from the Endangered Species Act. But President Joe Biden also said that his administration was watching closely the wolf hunting in several states.

The new proposal, which was not immediately posted to the FWP site, was offered by Tabor, and it adopted the hunting, snaring and baiting provisions, taking the harvest to 450 wolves, with in-season adjustments. It also required trappers to report any “non-targeted” species within 24 hours. If a protected predator, like a grizzly bear or lynx, is taken, that will trigger an immediate review of the measures by the commission.

The FWP Commission adopted a wolf harvest quota by district, which will limit the number of wolves from each area of the state. The following are the proposed wolf harvest numbers:

DISTRICT 1          195
DISTRICT 2          116
DISTRICT 3          82
DISTRICT 4          39
DISTRICT 5          11
DISTRICT 6            3
DISTRICT 7            4

If the quota is met, it would be a significant increase from last year’s harvest of 328 wolves, and 2019’s harvest of around 300. Ken McDonald of the FWP said the current wolf population in Montana is at 1,177.

Both Walsh and Byorth recognized that the Legislature ordered the wolf numbers reduced and the use of trapping, but they opposed the proposal because they disagreed with night-hunting and baiting, and wanted more restrictions on other measures.

Puppets and public comment

As was the case with the public comment meeting in June and the nearly 26,000 comments that were received during July on the proposal, as many as 90 percent of them opposed the measure. FWP staff said that most of the comments centered on trapping, snaring, night-hunting and baiting. The same was true for Friday’s meeting.

The commission drew a harsh rebuke for what many said was not listening to the majority of constituents and Montanans. FWP said the number of comments about the new wolf hunting regulations was likely record-setting, although statistics on the number of comments aren’t kept.

Many urged the commission to keep in place the hunting rules adopted last season, and only allow snaring and trapping on private land.

Several groups vowed to sue the state, and a few cheered at the idea of relisting the wolves on the Endangered Species Act, which would ostensibly take the management of the animals out of the state’s hands and put it back under the direction of the federal government.

And yet others urged the commission to think more about the economic impacts to the state: That many tourists travel to Montana in hopes of seeing apex predators like wolves and grizzly bears.

“This is a declaration of war on wolves,” said Mark Cook of Wolves of the Rockies.

He accused the commission of intentionally not including his written public comments, and said that even the FWP’s science is being stopped because it has failed to produce accurate counts of wolves, something the department disputes.

“Elk are becoming a commodity in Montana, and it’s B.S., and it’s got to stop,” he said. “The department leadership is either ignorant or disingenuous. This is your legacy, and it’s wrong. You’re responsible for the slaughter, and you people disgust me.”

Deborah Slicer, who teaches a graduate program in wildlife ethics at the University of Montana, accused the FWP of favoring special interest groups over average Montanans.

“I am familiar with Montana’s wolf wars and Montana’s fish and wildlife commission is ignoring us, and we’re sick of it,” Slicer said. “We find the use of these tools ethically embarrassing. Remember: Recreational users are your constituents, too.”

Michael McKenrick told the commissioners that he is a trapper, and he believes the legislature has given tools to help decrease the number of wolves.

“So help us help you,” he said.

Stephen Capra, of Footloose Montana, accused the commission of catering to the ½ percent of people who practice trapping at the expense of the rest of the state.

“You are beholden to Greg Gianforte,” he said. “You’re murdering innocent wildlife, and you don’t give a damn. It’s not about hunting, it’s about creating another cultural battle that has nothing to do with science.”

Andrea Zaccardi of the Center for Biological Diversity noted that wolf populations using last year’s quotas were sufficient to reduce wolf numbers across the state.

“I cannot not express my frustration to you, though,” Zaccardi said. “Because we’re not trappers, we feel ignored. The majority of the commission are puppets for trappers.”

One member of the Blackfoot Confederacy said that by hunting wolves, the commission was not honoring his religious freedoms.

“Come to your senses. There are killers here, and killers in the hall,” he said. “Tourists don’t come here to see the cows, the come here to see the wolves and grizzly bears.”

As he spoke, a small group of people clapped.

Nazarita Goldhammer of Bozeman said the commissioners were failing to understand the economic impact that wolves and other wildlife play in tourism and recreation.

“We represent the Montana public who loves this place for its beauty and wildlife and value that it’s safe from humans who bail and torture them. These practices are heinous and barbaric. You talk about how trappers train, and yet the governor violated the law. You’re coddling a small special interest group.”

Goldhammer was referring to an incident earlier this year when Gianforte had violated wolf trapping regulations.

“Snares have been portrayed as something new or evil,” said Jim Buell of the Montana Trappers Association. “It’s nothing new, just an additional tool.”

Others said boosting the elk numbers was essential for feeding Montana families and carrying out the state’s hunting legacy.

“These people care more about pups and cubs than the human babies who can’t grow up to hunt,” said Edwin Johnson.

Many accused the department of paying too much attention to the wolf population and not enough to elk, which are above target levels statewide.

Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition said that in 1994, one year before the reintroduction of wolves, elk counts by the FWP data were at 94,000. Today, with wolves, he quoted an estimate of 140,000 elk, along with statewide higher successful hunting percentages.

“Really, this is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

Some hunters who supported wolf hunting, including several statewide hunting organizations, told the commission that snaring, baiting and night hunting will harm the image of hunting in Montana.

“You’re setting the image of hunting here back 100 years,” said Eric Clewis of the Montana Wildlife Federation, which said they’ve always supported wolf hunting, but not this proposal.

Rod Bullis, a hunter who said he was the first person featured on television when wolf hunting was adopted in Montana, chastised the commission for not adopting rules punishing trappers who target non-game species.

“If you shoot a doe when you should have taken a buck, you pay $500 plus restitution,” he said. “There are no consequences for someone who kills a non-target species. This is unbelievable. There needs to be consequences.”

“This is not a scientific proposal, it’s a political one,” said Douglas Bellman, a naturalist.

(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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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.