On the eve of debate among Montana lawmakers in Helena over the future of wolf management, a spirited exchange was unfolding in this corner of the state, which harbors a robust wolf population and is home to a recent movement by hunters and trappers to publicly call for reducing the canids’ numbers.
Wolves are a perennial source of debate, but rally cries for fewer wolves on the landscape have risen to a fever pitch in recent months as the state assumes management over a species delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2011, while hunters report meager harvests of deer, elk and moose.
In Helena this week, elected officials were discussing the first of about a dozen bills that could shape how wolves are hunted and trapped in Montana, including a pair of proposed measures by Rep. Bob Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls who serves as the chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.
A champion of hunting and trapping-related issues, Brown’s name came up repeatedly during a Jan. 30 gathering of hunters and trappers at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell.
Although lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have proposed measures on both sides of the wolf spectrum, Brown’s bills are aimed squarely at expanding wolf harvests.
Most of the hunters who spoke during the Kalispell meeting described themselves as living in Sanders County, so it’s no wonder that Brown and Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who chairs the Senate’s Fish and Game Committee, are both carrying a suite of bills aimed at reducing the wolf population.
“Region 1 where I’m from is overrun,” Brown said. “And the elk are just not there.”
One of Brown’s proposals, House Bill 280, would add wolf tags to combination sportsman licenses that include black bear, deer, elk, upland bird, and fishing. Brown says such a bill would apply to residents and non-residents and would boost the number of license holders. Another measure, House Bill 281, would reimburse licensed wolf trappers for their costs — a proposal that critics have likened to a state-sanctioned bounty, which is illegal in Montana.
But the legality of killing wolves didn’t concern the nearly 400 hunters and trappers who attended the Jan. 30 meeting in Kalispell, the third such conference this winter organized by three hunting and trapping groups — the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management.
Mark Lambrecht with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation ticked through the roster of bills that lawmakers will consider this session concerning wolves and voiced support for the bills that Brown is carrying to expand wolf harvests.
“All of the critter bills are popping up in a hurry, and they’re getting a lot of attention,” he said. “Representative Bob Brown from this region has been particularly active on the wolf front.”
Still, some audience members wanted an even more aggressive campaign to reduce a wolf population they described as out of control, calling for aerial hunts and bringing up the use of poison to cull wolves.
“We can tell the tree huggers and the wolf lovers, they can take a lip-lock on a rolling doughnut,” one attendee said. “Cooler heads prevailed 100 year ago to solve the problem of the wolves. There’s one solution and it worked 100 years ago. That’s the ‘P’ word. Poison.”
The issue of wolves is a heated one among some hunters in large part due to their shared diet — like hunters, wolves eat deer, elk and moose, which have experienced back-to-back years of lowered population counts.
Biologists and wildlife experts with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks acknowledge that predators like wolves have an impact on ungulate populations, but say other factors contribute to fluctuating hunting harvests, including habitat changes caused by timber management and wildfire, as well as back-to-back heavy winters.
Recent population estimates peg Montana’s wolf population at about 850 animals statewide, with about 350 living in this region, which FWP defines as Region 1. The state wolf management plan allows for what officials describe as a lax hunting season as long as the population stays above a minimum 150 wolves.
If Montana were to hit that number, it would trigger a federal review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which could return wolves to protection under the Endangered Species Act, effectively ending wolf hunting. But most of the hunters in the room encouraged state wildlife officials to manage for that minimum population objective.
This hunting season, the state has sold about 17,000 wolf licenses. That’s down from 2013, when wolf hunters bought 24,000.
Last year, 24,217 Montana resident hunters bought a $70 sportsman’s combination package that included tags for deer, elk, upland gamebirds and fishing. Another 19,226 bought the same package with a bear license included for $85. HB 280, if amended, would add a wolf license to that for an additional $10. Individual wolf licenses cost $19.
During the 2017-18 season, hunters and trappers took 254 wolves, with 166 by hunters and an additional 88 by trapping. Total wolf mortality was about 305 wolves.
Neil Anderson, wildlife program manager for FWP’s Region 1, defended Montana’s trapping regulations, pointing out that wolves are a difficult species to hunt.
“If you look at the package, it’s a pretty liberal set of rules and regulations for hunting wolves,” he said. “But they’re pretty darn smart animals, and they’re hard to harvest.”
That did not assuage many of the hunters and trappers who say the state should do more about predator control.
“Montana used to be for the hunters, not for the predators,” Don Wilkins, a hunter from Libby, said.
Reimbursements to trappers and hunters has emerged as a popular idea among hunters in Idaho and Wyoming, and it’s gaining ground in Montana.
The Idaho group Foundation for Wildlife Management has been responsible for a reimbursement program that offsets the costs related to trapping wolves, and has shown interest in opening a chapter in Montana so that it could do the same here.
Justin Webb, executive director for the Foundation for Wildlife Management (F4WM), said the group reached out to officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks about implementing a program here and learned it would be illegal because under state law nothing of value can be given in exchange for the killing of a big game animal.
“Our hope is that a different ruling or determination can be made from Montana FWP Leadership, or that something can be done legislatively to make it legal for F4WM to operate legally within Montana,” Webb said.
F4WM offers reimbursements of $500 for any legally trapped Idaho wolf, $250 for legally hunted Idaho wolves, and $750 for wolves killed in parts of Idaho with lower-than-objective elk numbers.
Although the recent meetings on wolf management have turned testy at times, organizer Glenn Schenavar urged civility among sportsmen and women, calling it the only path forward.
“United we stand, divided we fall,” he said.