Divided State Wildlife Commission Expands Wolf Hunting, Trapping Regulations

Montana’s upcoming wolf hunting season will allow controversial methods including snaring, baiting and night hunting; expands quota to 450 wolves

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

A divided state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Aug. 19 adopted new wolf hunting and trapping regulations, increasing the number of animals hunters and trappers can legally harvest while approving several controversial hunting and trapping methods, including the use of bait hunting and hunting at night on private land. 

The split decision met approval in a 3-2 vote that allows for a statewide harvest quota of 450 wolves, a figure that represents nearly 40% of the state’s current population of wolves, according to data compiled by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). During last year’s wolf hunting season, hunters killed a record 330 wolves, and the new rules are designed to increase those harvests, per a legislative directive that propelled Montana’s wolf management policies into the global spotlight. 

The commission received thousands of comments from organizations and individuals opposed to wolf hunts, and whose litany of concerns included the unanticipated bycatch of domestic dogs as well as endangered species such as grizzly bears and Canada lynx.

In addition to expanding the statewide quota, the commission also set individual harvest quotas for each of Montana’s hunting and fishing management regions, allowing FWP to monitor the quotas and shut down regional hunts if and when the thresholds are reached.

The regional quotas allow hunters to harvest 195 wolves in Region 1, which encompasses northwest Montana, as well as 116 wolves in Region 2; 82 wolves in Region 3; 39 wolves in Region 4; 11 wolves in Region 5; three wolves in Region 6; and four wolves in Region 7. 

If either the state’s quota or a regional quota is reached, it triggers a process through which the commission must reconvene to discuss further options during the season, including further increasing the number of wolves harvested.

The new rules are in response to a legislative directive to drive down the state’s wolf population, including through the use of previously prohibited 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 received a steady beat of public feedback over the last month as it considered the suite of new tools to manage a species beloved by some and reviled by others.

The five-member commission, featuring three appointments made by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte upon entering office, was tasked with implementing the new laws along with FWP, which furnished 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 rules adopted last week, hunters are able to possess 10 wolf licenses and trappers are allowed a bag limit of 10 wolves. Each wolf harvested must be reported to the state within 24 hours.

The commission also approved neck-snare trapping of wolves and instructed FWP to establish an educational program to instruct hunters on best snaring practices, as well as on how to avoid conflicts with non-target animals, such as domestic dogs. If a non-target animal like a lynx or grizzly is snared, the commission will also meet to discuss potential immediate changes during the season.

The commission also approved controversial bait hunting and night hunting on private land, which generated lively back-and-forth discussions at the Aug. 19 meeting.

Commissioners KC Walsh and Pat Byorth specifically objected to those hunting methods, which are widely considered unethical and at odds with traditional “fair chase” hunting. For example, baiting is not allowed for any other animals legally hunted in the state, while night hunting has been illegal for decades.

“It gives permission to behavior that we’ve been fighting and our game wardens fight on a daily basis, and now we’re giving permission all out of a desire to kill more wolves,” Byorth noted. “We could kill more wolves with snares. But there’s no reason to night hunt. There’s no reason to use bait.”

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