HELENA - Jack Whitman and Jeff Ashmead stood in front of a room crowded with outdoorsmen Saturday, explaining the ins and outs of Montana’s upcoming wolf trapping season.
It was the first of 28 free classes — and possibly more — that will be held throughout Montana in the upcoming weeks for prospective trappers. Anyone who wants to trap a wolf must take the mandatory certification course.
Whitman and Ashmead are long-time wolf trappers for the state of Idaho. Earlier this week, Whitman noted that the classes aren’t a how-to course to trap a wolf as much as they are about ethics, rules and responsibility.
“This class is Wolfing 101,” Whitman explained. “This is the very basic course but it’s extremely important, especially now. You’re just right at the start of a legal wolf trapping season and you want to start trappers out right ethically, which is extremely worthwhile.”
Each class is limited to 50 people, and this one at the Montana Wild Center just west of Helena was full. So is the one for Sept. 15 in Missoula, as is the one Sept. 22 in Bozeman. Additional classes in all three communities still have available seats, as do courses in other communities throughout Montana. Quentin Kujala, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Management Section coordinator, said additional classes will be scheduled if the need arises.
“Our intent is to get things done before the end of November, which is two weeks before the wolf trapping season starts,” Kujala said. “We’ll have an assessment of what interest remains toward the end and if there’s enough we’ll slate additional classes.”
A recent FWP poll showed that about 1,700 people were considering trapping wolves.
Donny Kaneshiro of Helena is a seasoned furbearer trapper, and even though he hadn’t set out his gear for the past two years, he attended Saturday’s class just in case he gets an opportunity to trap this year.
“I love the outdoors and trapping is just another reason to not be in the house,” Kaneshiro said with a laugh. “Once the big game season is over, there’s not much else to do.”
He has a variety of reasons for considering wolf trapping. He likes the pelts, it’s a good trophy animal, and he’s concerned that their numbers are continuing to rise. Kaneshiro isn’t sure how many wolves the landscape, the big game and the public will tolerate, so he’s willing to give it a shot to help FWP manage their numbers.
John Opitz of Helena hasn’t trapped furbearers before, but he’s considering trying it with wolves. He noted that restrictions have tightened at his favorite elk hunting site, and that while he used to always come home with one to fill his freezer, that hasn’t been the case in the past few years.
“I’m concerned there’s just too many wolves on the landscape,” Opitz said. “I don’t hate them; I love them. They’re amazing, beautiful animals but their numbers are out of control.
“I love mice too, but when they start coming around and we have too many of them, I trap them too.”
Both said the classes were full of solid, straightforward information.
Whitman said the initial reaction to the mandatory classes is a little funny to watch. He taught them in Idaho last year and said people, especially by seasoned trappers, were resentful and questioning.
“Their body language was extremely against you — people’s arms were folded, they weren’t participating in class, because it was a requirement, another hoop they had to jump through,” Whitman said. “But by the end of the eight hours, people were extremely engaged. The feedback was extremely positive; they thought it was worthwhile.”
That doesn’t mean the trappers were successful. As of the end of April, Idaho wolf hunters killed 254 wolves while trappers took 124.
“I heard many tales of woe,” Whitman said. “I heard a lot about how it was a fun, fantastic opportunity and how many wolves they missed.”
George Pauley, FWP’s wildlife management section chief, said he expects Montana’s experience to be similar or maybe even lower since Idaho allows snares and Montana doesn’t.
“I think the biggest problem trappers will face is there are only so many wolves out there, but there’s a lot of country,” Pauley said.
At least 653 wolves roam in Montana, and FWP is hoping this year’s wolf hunting and trapping season will lower their known population to 425. State officials note that they didn’t allow trapping last year, yet despite extending the hunting season’s closing date, they didn’t fill the quota of 220 wolves; instead, only 160 were taken and the population continued to grow.
The wolf trapping season runs from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28. Only leg hold traps are allowed — no conibears or snares — and trappers must visually check traps every 48 hours. Any trapped wolf that’s not going to be released must also be shot immediately.
Traps can be baited with scents, but not within 30 feet of visible bait.
“That reduces the incidents of catching raptors,” Pauley said.
Both Whitman and Pauley — who also used to trap wolves for Idaho — say that they’re not easy to catch. Traps must be much larger than for other furbearing prey. Wolves are intelligent, with a strong sense of smell, tremendous vision and good hearing. They’ve been known to exert about 600 pounds of pull on a neck snare and if rings aren’t welded together on a trap they’ll pull those right apart.
“I’ve got a shop full of broken traps,” Whitman said.
Ken McDonald, chief of FWP’s wildlife bureau in Helena, urged trappers to be responsible and ethical.
“Montana’s wolf trappers must be thoughtful, and they need to understand that they’ll be representing their fellow Montanans, hunters and trappers everywhere,” McDonald said. “FWP is using hunting and trapping as a wildlife management tool to bring Montana’s rapidly growing wolf population into balance with available habitats, other wildlife and with the values and tolerance of the people who live, work, and recreate in Montana.”