Big game wildlife populations appear to be bouncing back in Northwest Montana after a few rough years, according to state Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ spring surveys.
The percentage of white-tail fawns that survived winter is the highest since 2006 in Region 1, according to FWP Wildlife Manager Jim Williams. Williams said the survey found an average of 44 fawns for every 100 adults. Last year, that number was 30/100. In 2009, it had dropped to 24/100.
Mule deer and elk populations also gained ground in almost all areas, Williams said.
The latest population estimates are welcome news for hunters and FWP. Last fall, nearly every region in the state saw significant declines in both animals harvested and hunters in the field, supporting a widespread perception that big game populations, specifically deer, are on the decline.
Spring surveys are FWP’s most effective way of gauging population trends for wildlife. Officials survey the landscape and tally the number of young animals that survived their first winter when the highest mortality rate takes place.
“This does predict buck harvest and check stations will show the uptick next fall,” Williams said.
Williams unveiled the latest population trends at a crowded Flathead Wildlife, Inc., meeting at Lone Pine State Park a few hours after the state wildlife commission tentatively approved an expansion of wolf hunting on May 10.
On any other day, the big-game population numbers would be the big news. After all, Williams described white-tail deer as the “bread and butter of hunting season.” But wolves have remained the hot topic of conversation in the outdoor community and the debate has reached a fever pitch now that hunting regulations could be further loosened.
The state FWP commission tentatively approved changes that would allow wolves to be trapped for the first time, eliminate hunting quotas everywhere except the two districts bordering Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and expand the season to Feb. 28.
Before a final decision is made the agency is accepting public comment until June 25. A local public gathering is scheduled for June 13 at Flathead Valley Community College. Williams said a slideshow will be shown detailing the proposed changes and FWP staff will be on hand to take questions.
If approved, trappers would have to take a mandatory workshop and could take one wolf. They would have to check their traps every 48 hours and could not use snares, which catches an animal around the neck or body. Foothold traps would have to be 50 feet away from open roads and hiking trails on designated federal and state lands. On public land, foothold traps would be prohibited within 300 feet of a designated or marked trailhead and within 1,000 feet of a designated campground or fishing access site. Also traps would be prohibited within 1,000 feet of an occupied dwelling without written notification of the occupant.
Opponents of trapping voiced their outrage at the commissioner’s meeting in Helena, which lasted for almost four hours. Representatives from Footloose Montana, which promotes trap-free public lands for people, pets and wildlife, spoke out against the changes.
The proposed trapping season would begin Dec. 15 after grizzly bears have already begun hibernating.
Williams congratulated the crowd of almost 70 people involved with the Flathead Wildlife, Inc., a longtime local organization dedicated to sustaining wildlife and wildlife habitat in the Flathead Valley and Montana.
Williams pointed out a few local trappers who provided insight into trapping during the four-hour commission hearing.
“Fur harvesters from Region 1 provided probably the best public comment. You spoke about ethics, education and everything was complimentary. You were unbelievably affective I think,” he said.
“It was really neat to see democracy in action and to watch all the differing viewpoints.”
Hunters tagged 62 wolves in Region 1 during last year’s hunt. Williams said that didn’t eliminate a single pack.
“There was almost no biological impact. You don’t need quotas to manage wolves,” he said. “The reality is they’re very intelligent animals. How many wolves do you see out there? Even trapping in the snow will be very difficult.”
FWP is recommending state legislators rewrite laws to increase the number of wolves a hunter can kill from one to three and allow the use of electronic calls.
“We’ve gone from the endangered species list to managing the animal with, I think, a really good season structure,” Williams said.
For more information about the proposed changes to the wolf hunt, read the commission’s letter detailing the proposal online.
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