Legislators consider bills to increase the opportunity, methods to kill Montana wolves

The Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management joined with the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife to rally support for reducing restrictions on wolf hunting and trapping. (Gary Jacobson)

Almost every session, a few Montana legislators target certain wildlife species with their bills. This session, wolves are back in the crosshairs.

This week, the House Fish and Wildlife committee heard two of the more contentious bills aimed at killing more of Montana’s wolves. House Bill 551 would allow people to hunt wolves at night, and HB 552 would reduce the distance from roads where wolf traps can be set.

Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, sponsored both bills, in addition to four others. After attending meetings of certain hunters in Trout Creek and Kalispell, Brown agreed to carry the bills, although he said he anticipated resistance to the bill allowing hunting at night.

The Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management joined with the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife to organize the meetings as a way to rally support for reducing restrictions on wolf hunting and trapping.

All three organizations prioritize management of deer and elk herds while calling for severe reductions in populations of predators, especially wolves. They say elk populations are in decline, even though many Montana landowners regularly complain to FWP about too many elk, which has prompted the agency to lengthen the elk season.

Wolves in Montana and Idaho were removed from the endangered species list in 2010. The 2017 Montana Gray Wolf Program Annual Report estimates there are approximately 900 wolves in Montana. The annual wolf harvest eliminates about 225 animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services kills around 50 wolves, and others die of natural causes.

The three hunting organizations claim the numbers that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set as the minimum for wolf recovery – 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs – should be the maximum allowed in the state, although no maximum objective was set.

Two people testified Thursday in favor of Brown’s bills, but none of the organizations sent representatives to voice their support.

Scott Blackman of the Montana Trapper’s Association said the ability to hunt at night was needed because only about 100 trappers actively trap wolves and only about 20 of those really go after wolves.

Wyoming wanted to classify wolves as predatory animals when they were taken off protected status so they could kill them using any method across most of the state. (USFWS)

“I think you would add a few (wolves), and they would be the damage wolves that are actually killing livestock,” Blackman said.

Not all hunters want to throw ethics out the window just to target wolves.

The Montana Wildlife Federation opposed both bills on Thursday along with six other opponents. The Montana Sportsmen Alliance also submitted comments in opposition.

MWF spokesman Nick Gevock said MWF had worked with several stakeholders a few years ago to create wolf-trap setbacks that everyone could support. Presenting such collaborative efforts to the FWP commission is how things should be done rather than creating laws, Gevock said.

“This bill would put people in the field during the nighttime, in grizzly-bear country, during the elk and deer ruts, and have people driving by fields full of elk and deer feeding at night and we think that’s an invitation for unethical behavior and increased poaching. We think that’s an enforcement nightmare for our wardens,” Gevock said.

But Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, pointed out that it’s legal to hunt coyotes at night with artificial light, because coyotes are considered “predatory animals,” and the state allows people to use almost any means to kill them. Wyoming wanted to classify wolves as predatory animals when they were taken off protected status so they could kill them using any method across most of the state.
But FWP administrator Ken McDonald said Montana already has a six-month season for wolves, and even Idaho, “which is known for its very liberal wolf hunting regulations,” doesn’t allow night hunting.

“The concept of fair chase is well rooted in Montana. Allowing night hunting for what is an iconic species to many people stands to blemish Montana’s wolf management in the eyes of many residents and nonresidents,” McDonald said.

The revered Boone and Crocket Club defines fair chase as the pursuit of big game “in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”

When it came to reducing the wolf-trap setback from 500 to 150 feet from closed mountain roads on public land, KC York of Trap Free Montana Public Lands said many people prefer to cross-country ski on closed roads with their children and dogs to avoid snowmobiles, so putting traps closer to roads increased the risk of injury.

Snares can be painful, but conibear traps, set to crush the neck or upper body, can be deadly. After dozens of pets were inadvertently trapped, the 500-foot setback was first put in place in 2013 on 20 high-traffic trails around Bozeman and Livingston. The restriction was also placed on five trails in northwestern Montana.

Retired biologist Sam Milodragovich said reduced setbacks wouldn’t have made as much of a difference 20 years ago, but now, more Montanans are venture into the mountains.

“When you see ski or snowshoe tracks, very often, there’s a dog track,” Milodragovich said.

York helped push for the 500-foot setbacks, and over the years, she has tried to get initiatives on the ballot to ban trapping on public land.

This year, she took another approach and helped draft a bill – HB287 – to require trappers to check their traps daily instead of every other day, but it died in the same Fish and Wildlife committee where Brown presented his bills.

Brown’s other bills, all of which passed the committee, would make resident and nonresident wolf licenses easier to get and make them cheaper to the point of allowing nonresidents to get free wolf licenses if they buy combination big game licenses. The free wolf licenses would create a loss of $80,650 for FWP, according to Legislative fiscal analysts.

Finally, Brown’s HB 279, which passed on a committee vote of 10-8, would allow wolf-contest organizers to reimburse trappers for their costs. The Foundation for Wildlife Management already reimburses trappers in Idaho up to $1,000 with the help of RMEF funding.

But meanwhile, over in the Senate Fish and Game committee, Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, recently presented a bill – SB186 – that would prohibit contests for predatory animals.

The committee already tabled his effort to create a buffer zone around Yellowstone National Park where wolves couldn’t be killed.

So Phillips is also sponsoring a study to look at the economic benefit that wolves and grizzly bears bring to Montana and a bill to make it illegal to use vehicles to run predators down. In Wyoming, where people are allowed to run down coyotes and wolves with snowmobiles, a similar attempt at banning the practice as animal cruelty died in the Wyoming Legislature.

On Thursday, Wolves of the Rockies spokesman Marc Cooke of Stevensville couldn’t hold back his disgust at making wolf killing easier.

“You already have a liberal system to begin with, and there’s already a bunch of tools in the toolbox to kill these animals. If people want to kill them, they need to go out and do it. As one gentleman said, there’s only five to 20 people out there seriously trapping wolves,” Cooke said. “If that’s your goal in life to kill a wolf, then you need to work harder. It shouldn’t be made easier.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.