HELENA — Proposals to liberalize the 2013-2014 wolf hunting and trapping season in Montana drew a wide range of comments Thursday from supporters and opponents of the plan put forth by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
The usual sportsmen's groups in favor of increased hunting and trapping activities noted that they’re still looking for the proper predator-prey balance on the landscape, and the majority endorsed the proposal. Among other items, it calls for a 6 1/2-month wolf hunting season and a bag limit of five wolves per person, up from one per person. Electronic calls also would be allowed.
“We think the department has done an excellent job putting together this proposal and it is incremental,” said Blake Henning, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Jay Bodner, director of natural resources for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, added that they believe FWP is on the right track.
“Increasing the season and bag limits are good measures to reduce the wolf population,” he said.
Others don’t agree. Chris Colligan, the wildlife program manager for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the proposal is giving Montana a “black eye” nationally and while they’ve supported Montana’s wolf management in the past, they want changes to this plan.
“This goes too far,” Colligan said. “This management is worse than in Idaho and Wyoming. You need to modify it back to the 2012-2013 levels.”
Others noted that increasing the wolf harvests to offset a drop in elk numbers is misleading. The elk population actually is over management objectives statewide — although their numbers dropped precipitously in a few areas — and livestock depredations seem to be lessening in recent years. The drop in elk numbers, particularly in the Bitterroot and Paradise valleys, initially was blamed on wolves but an ongoing study seems to show that mountain lions, bears and humans is having more of an impact than previously thought.
“It seems Montana wants to be an elk farm now,” said Kim Beam with Wolves of the Rockies, who called trapping is “barbaric.” “Where they’re below objectives it’s been determined that the human component is largely to blame.”
A burgeoning coalition of eco-tourism organizations also rallied to voice their concerns that hunting and trapping wolves, especially around Gardner and other areas north of Yellowstone National Park, is having an adverse economic impact.
“People call and ask if they’ll see wolves, and I have to tell them I can’t guarantee it,” said Kat Brekken with the National WolfWatcher Coalition. “We used to see three packs on any given day. Now maybe I see one wolf in three days.”
Dan Wenk, the park supervisor, said they have 3.5 million visitors each year, with the majority of them being wildlife watchers. He said the number of wolves in the park has steadily declined since 2003, and he believes that’s directly related to hunting outside of the park’s boundaries. He noted that seven wolves from packs known to reside at least part-time in Yellowstone were taken by hunters last year outside of the park and that’s harming both the research and the wolf watching.
Wenk asked the FWP Commission to consider a kind of buffer zone outside the park, in which they would limit the number of wolves that could be taken, as well as cap the number to one per person.
“I recommend small management units around the part to achieve mutual goals,” Wenk said. “The current proposal substantially increases the risks to wolf populations and the packs that spend the majority of time in the park.
“… This is undesirable to the park because there is no safeguard to excessive harvesting of wolves, which would hurt our research program and may impact visitors’ enjoyment.”
Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation said a “tremendous amount” of science was used to craft the current proposal, which his organization supports. He noted that while some of the eco-tourism groups bemoaned no longer being able to guarantee that their clients see wolves in and around Yellowstone, the expectation around the state is that glimpsing wildlife is a gift, not a given.
“If your business model guarantees the sight of wildlife, you need to look at that model,” Gevock said. “This plan gives the agency ways to manage wolves as needed and safeguards are there to keep from pushing wolves to the point where they’re relisted.”
Montana has held three wolf hunting seasons in the past four years, and added trapping to the management mix last year. The current proposal calls for an archery season from Sept. 7 to 14, followed by a rifle season from Sept. 15 to March 31.
Last year, the wolf hunting season started Oct. 15 with the regular big game rifle season, and ended Feb. 15. Hunters harvested 128 during the 2012/2013 season and trappers took 97 for a total of 225.
If approved, this year’s rifle hunting season would coincide with the black bear and backcountry big game rifle seasons. The trapping season, which ran from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28 in 2012-2013, would remain the same this season under the proposal. However, trappers who saw wolves near bait along their traplines would be allowed to shoot the wolves if they had a adequate licenses.
At Thursday’s FWP Commission meeting, Ken McDonald, FWP Wildlife Division manager, said they’re trying to find ways to increase opportunities to hunt wolves and also reduce their numbers. He said FWP doesn’t have a goal in mind for the wolf population, but is seeking a balance between landowners, wolf enthusiasts, stockgrowers and hunters.
“We’re still in the beginning stages of learning about wolf management,” McDonald said, noting that they’ve only been off the list of animals under federal protection for two years. “We’ve learned a lot in the last decade … but it’s still relatively a learn-as-we-go approach.”
He added that their models show that they can remove about 500 wolves from the population and still have anywhere from 300 to 500 wolves on the landscape.
Recovery of gray wolf populations has been ongoing since their reintroduction to Yellowstone Park in the mid 1990s, after they were extirpated from their traditional ranges by trapping, poisoning and shooting them as nuisances and predators.
In Montana, they were removed, then returned numerous times to the list of animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act until, in April 2011, an act of congress delisted them.
At the end of 2012, the known minimum wolf population in Montana was 625 wolves in 147 packs. The statewide population has trended upward since recovery efforts began and FWP believes it’s stabilizing, with the minimum count dropping this year from a high of 653 known wolves in 2011.
Under the proposal, FWP will continue to maintain the general season without a statewide quota. However, a seven-wolf quota would be set in an expanded Wolf Management Unit 316, just north of Yellowstone National Park, and the quota would remain at two wolves in WMU 110 abutting Glacier National Park.
The state agency also is asking the commission to allow FWP to initiate emergency season closures at any time, especially if harvest levels seem excessive.
FWP Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said he knows that wolf management is a contentious issue, but even if they disagree about particulars, everyone who spoke Thursday seemed to have a common goal: to maintain healthy populations of elk, wolves, deer and other wildlife on the landscape.
He also was buoyed by comments from some of the wolf supporters that they are willing to pitch in to help cover management costs as federal funding is withdrawn. He noted that they heard a lot about the economic component of wolves Thursday, and appreciated non-consumptive users expressing a willingness to participate financially in the management of wolves.
“We’ve talked for a while about how we go about capturing that nonconsumptive use and gain their participation in the expensive job of managing wildlife,” Vermillion said. “It’s been raised a couple times; maybe nonconsumptive users should buy wolf tags and whether they use them or not it would be a way to participate in wolf management.”
Public comments will be taken on the proposal through June 24, and the commission will consider final adoption at its July 10 meeting in Helena. Information on how to comment will be released later this week.