Council briefed on Montana environmental issues

2013-06-21T00:00:00Z 2013-06-21T06:50:04Z Council briefed on Montana environmental issuesBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

To get a sense of some of the most pressing environmental issues facing Montana, consider the Environmental Quality Council’s agenda — controlling wolf populations, hunting and fishing license reform, sage grouse protection and the increasing cost of fighting wildland fires.

These were just part of the agenda for the council’s two-day meeting in Helena on Wednesday and Thursday. The 17-member committee, composed of legislators and members of the public, reviews environmental issues and conducts studies assigned by the Legislature. This year, the group has a full plate. Here are some of the highlights from Thursday’s meeting.

Sage grouse

With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered to decide whether to list the sage grouse as an endangered species by 2015, Western states have been working to establish their own management plans.

“If you think the wolf was a big issue for Montana, it’s a piker compared to sage grouse,” said Sen. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, who sits on the council and the governor’s advisory committee.

The governor has appointed a sage grouse advisory committee which has scheduled 10 meetings between now and October. The plan is to have a draft out in October with a final report recommended by late November. Gov. Steve Bullock would then have until early January to make any adjustments with a plan finalized by the end of January, said Jeff Hagener, director of Montana Fish, Wildilfe and Parks.

Council member Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, suggested that halting the state’s hunting season for sage grouse may satisfy concerns expressed by some of the state’s partners. Hagener noted that, scientifically, hunting hasn’t been seen as affecting the bird’s population, but the perception is that if oil and gas leasing may be disallowed in certain areas because the birds are few, then hunting shouldn’t be allowed.

Wildland fires

Montana’s wildland firefighting costs went up by $6.5 million because of large fires, said Bob Harrington, state forester for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The reason is that fires have gotten larger and therefore require more people and equipment to fight.

This year’s outlook improved considerably with May rains, pushing back the start of the season until mid to late July, Harrington said. By this time last year, three large fires were already burning, including the Dahl and Ash Creek fires in southeastern Montana.

This season, the area of primary concern is southwestern Montana, where drought has overlapped with mountain pine beetle-killed trees. But as Harrington noted, depending on the weather, lightning strikes and arson, “anything can happen.”

Fishing and hunting licenses

The EQC has been ordered to review the variety and cost of the state’s fishing and hunting licenses.

Nick Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his group would like to see the council give the Fish and Game Commission the ability to raise license fees so that increases could be more incremental, instead of large jumps approved by the Legislature every 10 years or so.

Joe Perry, of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, said resident license fees need to be increased to more closely match other Western states and licenses that fund specific programs need to be addressed.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks has already formed its own group that is challenged to make the licensing process as simple as possible, Hagener said. The group is expected to issue a report in September.

Wolf numbers

“Wolf numbers in the state have, over the years, been on a pretty steep incline,” Hagener said.

In 2010, the wolf population in Montana was estimated at 556. It grew to 653 in 2011 and dipped to 625 last year.

“We feel pretty good about that because we stabilized the growth of the wolves, and we believe a lot of that is attributed to hunting and trapping,” Hagener said.

In 2009, 72 wolves were killed in the state’s first hunting season. The season was halted in 2010, but resumed in 2011 with 166 wolves killed .  Last year, 225 wolves were taken. Out of the 2012 wolf kills, 128 were taken by hunters, with 97 killed by trappers.

The federal Wildlife Services agency removed 141 wolves in 2010, 64 in 2011 and 108 last year. So far this year, the agency has killed 33 wolves and a landowner has killed one.

Adding up both sets of numbers, since 2009 810 wolves have been killed (excluding Wildlife Service’s take in 2009). Since 2010, 384 sheep and cattle deaths have been attributed to wolves.

“We think it’s appropriate to bring the (wolf) population down to a lower level,” Hagener said.

To that end, FWP has proposed extending the season and allowing a single hunter to kill up to five wolves a season. So far, the agency has received about 20,000 comments on the proposal. Comments will be taken until Monday.

Last year, 18,642 residents and 247 nonresidents bought wolf hunting licenses. The license sales generated more than $437,000 in revenue. By law, the state is required to allocate $900,000 to wolf management, 50 percent to lethal control and 50 percent to monitoring.

Kim Bean, representing Wolves of the Rockies, said the council needed to consider easing the take of wolves outside Yellowstone National Park, partly because they provide a boost to tourism in the area. She said the removal of wolves is not proportional to the amount of livestock they kill and that money should be spent on educating the public about the predators.

The council meets again Sept. 11-12 in Helena.

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