Opposing Sides of Wolf Debate Meet in Kalispell

By Beacon Staff

For once the wolf debate played out respectfully. Somewhat.

More than 90 people came together last week to discuss proposed changes to the controversial wolf hunt at a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks public gathering at Flathead Valley Community College.

The June 13 meeting was the final one in the state before the FWP commission votes to adopt the latest wolf hunt adjustments on July 12. Public comment remains open until June 25.

As a way to manage the state’s rising wolf population, the commission is planning to further loosen hunting regulations, including eliminating quotas except near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and extending the season to late February. Also among the proposed changes is the inclusion of a trapping season, which has come under the most scrutiny. FWP plans to authorize a roughly two-month season between Dec. 15 and Feb. 28 when hunters can use foot-hold traps in designated areas to harvest one wolf.

Trapping has historically been a thorny topic. That became evident in Kalispell when residents were separated into tables and allowed to speak up.

“What does trapping say of us as humans?” Angela Davidson asked surrounding listeners. “Is that ethical? If we’re going to do this we should do this the most ethical way.”

“I’m also a naturalist. I’m an animal lover,” a man across from her responded. “But I’m just trying to figure out how to help lower these (wolf) numbers.”

Conversations played out similarly throughout the crowded room as people with opposing opinions met eye to eye, trying to solve a divisive predicament. Some questioned FWP’s population estimates; others said the loosened regulations are not loose enough.

“We need to have a control on this,” Todd Wirthlin said. “The way the commission is treating this is, I feel, with kid gloves. They’re just staying away from it and right now the wolf population is just exploding.”

In 2005, there were 256 wolves reported in Montana and that figure has steadily increased every since. According to a field count by FWP, there was a minimum of 653 wolves statewide last year.

Since wolves were delisted in 2009 and again in 2011, wildlife officials have tried to manage the population with a hunting season. During last winter’s second season, 18,689 licenses were purchased and the state’s goal was to drop the minimum population by 25 percent, from 566 in 2010 to 425 wolves.

But hunters only harvested 166 despite an extension to the season. The average harvest rate turned out to be one wolf per day, the same ratio during the first hunt in 2009, according to FWP.

After failing to reach its goal and finding the minimum population actually grew another 15 percent last year, the FWP commission announced plans to further loosen hunting regulations in May.

Montana’s wolf management plan could become a litmus test for other states. Only Montana and Idaho currently have hunting seasons, with Wyoming working on a delisting plan that would allow for one. In the Midwest, legislatures in Wisconsin and Minnesota are proposing first-ever wolf hunting seasons. As to be expected, the proposals have led to controversy.

The legal battle in Montana appears to be over for the time being. Last week wildlife advocates said they would not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep wolves protected under the Endangered Species Act in Idaho and Montana. Advocacy groups filed lawsuits charging that state-sponsored hunts could drive wolves towards extinction. Two lower courts ruled in favor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove gray wolves from protection status again last spring.

There were an estimated 1,774 wolves in the Northern Rockies at the end of last year. There were believed to be roughly 50 packs with an average of seven wolves per pack in Northwest Montana’s Region One, according to FWP.

If approved, the latest hunting regulations will go into effect next season. The commission could authorize an immediate closure to the season at any time if FWP finds excessive harvest levels in any area. FWP will repeat the regulation review process again next year.

The commission plans to recommend to the state Legislature that it allow electronic calls and an increased bag limit from one to three. Both changes would require legislative approval.

Sue and Jerry Pierce drove from near Libby to attend the Kalispell gathering because they both remain very interested in how the state plans to handle this issue.

Sue Pierce feared it would be another meeting filled with more emotion than logic. She left pleasantly surprised.

“Everybody from all different opinions had an opportunity to express what they thought of the issue and it didn’t become a free-for-all,” she said. “I think we had a meaningful and respectful discussion even though we disagreed.”

To submit public comment before June 25, visit FWP’s website, fwp.mt.gov, or send letters to FWP – Wildlife Bureau, Attn: Public Comment, POB 200701, Helena, MT, 59620-0701.

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