Despite a proposal from state wildlife managers to extend the general wolf-hunting and trapping seasons in Montana’s northwest corner while doubling its allowable harvest quota, members of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Feb. 13 elected to maintain the current season dates and quotas as spelled out under the 2019 regulations.
The rule-making body also voted to tighten wolf quotas in hunting districts 313 and 316 north of Yellowstone National Park, reducing allowable take from two wolves to one after hearing public comment from wolf advocates who say non-consumptive wildlife viewers deserve a seat at a table increasingly dominated by a vocal minority of hunters who want to see wolf populations decimated.
Speaking during public comment at the rule-making meeting in Helena, former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Gary Wolfe, of Missoula, said he’s a bit of an anomaly as a hunter who also wants to see healthy wolf populations on the landscape.
Although Wolfe said he supported the current limited harvest quota of one wolf in each of the districts flanking Yellowstone, he bristled at the proposal by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP) Region 1 officials to expand hunting opportunities in northwest Montana.
“This is not a biological objection but a social one, because the optics of this proposal are terrible,” Wolfe said. “From the perspective of conservation-minded sportsmen, it just isn’t ethical. It doesn’t look good. The perception it sends is that the department is catering to those folks who would like to eliminate wolves from the landscape. I don’t envy the commissioners in that seat right now. These are difficult decisions.”
According to wildlife officials with FWP’s Region 1, whose jurisdiction encompasses Flathead, Lincoln, Sanders, and Lake counties, the proposed changes to the wolf hunting and trapping seasons emerged from the latest biennial season-setting process involving the review of hunting season structures for most game animals and other managed species. FWP regional staff met and took input from local communities at four meetings across northwest Montana this winter. More than 900 public comments were also received online from Dec. 5 to Jan. 27 and forwarded to commissioners and FWP staff for their consideration.
“We heard from a substantial number of people attending the public meetings throughout northwest Montana who requested additional opportunity for wolves,” FWP Regional Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson said. “Biologically, we have the wolf population to sustain additional harvest opportunity and wanted to be responsive to public input and participation.”
The proposed changes included extending the general hunting season to begin Aug. 15 and end March 31 (currently, archery season begins Sept. 1, while general season begins Sept. 15 and ends March 15); extending trapping season to March 15 (currently, it ends Feb. 28); and increasing the individual limit to 10 wolves per person (the current individual limit is five).
Before the commission voted unanimously to maintain the current hunting and trapping regulations for wolves, Commissioner Pat Byorth characterized the proposal as a “pander” that will appease some critics of the state’s wolf management plan but won’t make any real difference on the landscape.
“The Region 1 proposal came late and it’s a sea change. And it’s going to have implications for wolf management in a lot of regions,” Byorth said. “To me wolves are a valued wildlife resource. I want to keep wolves healthy and keep them on the landscape, but this doesn’t do it. This is a pander to other issues. And we are making a change that will do nothing, and it almost makes a promise to people that it will.”
Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his organization supports wolf-hunting opportunities in the state, adding that wolf populations are healthy with good genetic exchange. However, he said expanding the timeframe to hunt and trap wolves would create conflict with other wildlife, and increase the potential for bycatch, such as grizzly bears inadvertently being trapped.
“The best conservation model is to have hunters on the ground and harvesting within their limits,” Gevock said. “But don’t extend trapping season. Grizzlies are out there and that’s a dangerous situation for the trapper, for the bear and for your staff.”