Rules Review to Reduce Wolves Fuels Debate

Public comment continues through July 26 on new laws that would allow snares and expand trapping season; opponents fear unintended bycatch

By Tristan Scott
A wolf print along the bank of the Middle Fork Flathead River. Beacon file photo

Faced with a legislative directive to drive down the state’s wolf population, including through the use of methods like snaring, baiting and night hunting, as well as an expansion of trapping seasons that could overlap with grizzly bear and Canada lynx activity, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has continued to receive a steady beat of public feedback as it considers adopting a suite of new tools to manage wolves.

The new wolf-hunting proposals come on the heels of a legislative session that passed a host of controversial wildlife measures earlier this year, although the laws provide varying degrees of discretion to the commission, which is slated to make a final determination on the regulations next month. The five-member commission, featuring three appointments made by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte upon entering office, is tasked with implementing the new laws along with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), which is in the process of gathering public comment before a final hearing on Aug. 20. 

The new legislation calls on FWP administrators to furnish the commissioners with a menu of options to fulfill the legislative directive to reduce Montana’s wolves, ranging from minor changes to the state’s current wolf hunting regulations to a more aggressive overhaul. Under the current regulations, hunters harvested approximately 350 wolves last hunting season, while the proposed changes will almost certainly increase the harvest rates.

“We predict all these options will result in a reduction in the statewide population of wolves,” FWP Wildlife Administrator Ken McDonald told commissioners during their June 23 meeting, adding that determining the parameters of the upcoming wolf-hunting season is at their discretion. “The Commission can mix and match from these options listed in the proposal or adopt something completely different.”

In its presentation to the commissioners, FWP administrators attempted to meet the legislative directive while also helping the state navigate potential legal sticking points. Indeed, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups have already submitted a notice of intent to sue the state of Montana if it implements new laws permitting the snaring of wolves and expanded trapping seasons, which the groups say — and biologists agree — would lead to the trapping and killing of federally protected species like grizzly bears and Canada lynx.

Under Endangered Species Act requirements and international agreements on the exporting of wolf pelts, McDonald said trapping must be regulated to minimize incidental catches of Canada lynx, a federally protected species. State officials have similar concerns surrounding the unintentional trapping of grizzly bears, both to protect bears and as a public safety measure, McDonald said. Current state regulations include adjustments and restrictions designed to avoid the accidental bycatch of non-target species like lynx and bears, such as restrictions on trapping methods and the timing of trapping seasons.

Supporters of the new measures, including northwest Montana lawmakers who have been driving the policymaking changes, have said more wolf hunting and trapping is necessary in areas of high wolf densities where the carnivores prey on elk, deer and moose. The legislation was carried by GOP lawmakers from Thompson Falls, where hunters have voiced concerns about wolf predation on ungulates for years.

Hunters in northwest Montana have reported a decline in hunting success on elk in the years since wolves have repopulated the landscape, even as biologists say wolf predation isn’t the only, or even the primary, factor.

Biologists and wildlife experts with Montana FWP 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. 

Neil Anderson, FWP’s wildlife program manager in this region, said elk “recruitment” rates, meaning how many calves are observed, have been low during seasonal counts and the agency would like to grow several elk herds in this corner of the state.

Current population estimates peg Montana’s wolf population at about 985 animals statewide, according to McDonald. 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. 

FWP’s proposal includes multiple options the agency believes follows the intent of the legislation, while falling within the commission’s discretion and avoiding potential federal intervention. Options are arranged from minimum to maximum in terms of lowering wolf numbers. For example, commissioners could raise bag limits from the current five to 10 wolves. Trapping seasons could remain the same or be expanded statewide by a month outside of lynx protection zones. And night hunting could continue to be outlawed or allowed statewide.

FWP recommended wolf snaring only be allowed on private land during the first year as the state updates its mandatory training program. The agency also includes multiple regulations on what types of snares may be used and how they should be set to avoid non-target catches.

The proposal makes several other recommendations to reduce conflicts. Those include a requirement that the commission meet should 450 wolves be killed in a season, and then again at 50-wolf increments, to consider season adjustments. The commission should also meet to consider adjustments should a protected grizzly bear or lynx be trapped.

Rep. Paul Fielder, who carried the bills authorizing snaring and extending trapping seasons, was one of two proponents who spoke in favor of the proposals last month, although he voiced several concerns with the leeway he believes FWP exercised in interpreting the legislation.

“I’m concerned that the proposals being offered in the agenda do not meet the legislative intent of those bills,” he said. “I believe that many of the options proposed by FWP staff fail to meet the legislative intent.”

More than two-dozen opponents spoke out against the proposed measures during last month’s meeting, with the most common objection centering on the dearth of science-based policy proposals.

Nick Gevock, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the current proposals would be detrimental to multiple species across the landscape, and that current Montana law allows for an abundance of wolf-hunting opportunities. Hunting methods like night hunting and baiting has been illegal in Montana for a reason, he said — because it’s unethical.

“We already have plenty of opportunities to kill wolves,” Gevock said. “These proposals have no basis whatsoever on science. The commission should use its discretion, keep this about the science and listen to what the biologists are recommending.”