BOULDER -- Hunters pleaded with the Jefferson County Commission on Tuesday to not institute a bounty on wolves and mountain lions and said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks needs more time to figure out how to better manage them.
But Commissioner Leonard Wortman said their hands are tied if more than 51 percent of the livestock owners in the county petition for the controversial reward system for presenting dead wolf and mountain lion hides. By statute, the livestock producers would have to tax themselves to create the bounty money.
"The statute says we ‘shall' impose a fee if they request we do it," Wortman said. "It's something that comes from the people, from the bottom up. It doesn't come from us."
Wortman and the other two commissioners said they've been hearing concerns from livestock owners over depredation in Jefferson County. And they noted that, when the quota in the Wolf Management Unit they're in was reached, not one wolf had been killed in their county.
"There's got to be an attitude change with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and, if nobody is willing to do it, Jefferson County is willing to represent Montana," Wortman said. "Agriculture is a big part of our tax base, and we need to protect our county.
"I don't want to exterminate wolves, but we need to get their numbers down."
But Commissioner Tom Lythgoe warned that the bounty could backfire, and he urged ranchers not to move the idea forward.
"The commission needs to be proactive with things we can get accomplished, but I personally don't think bounties are a real good idea that will help us accomplish what we want to get accomplished," Lythgoe said.
Three men who describe themselves as avid hunters and houndsmen said that while they're not big fans of wolves -- and all three were part of the 18,000 people who bought a $19 permit this year to shoot one -- they want the commission to cut FWP and the federal government some slack when it comes to managing wolves. This is only the second year that wolf hunting has been legal in Montana.
"Give them the chance to learn about this, and let the process work a little bit," said Josh Pallister. "It's not that I love wolves, but we are uneducated about them."
He added that he thinks mountain lions and coyotes are killing a lot more fawns, deer and elk calves than wolves.
Rod Bullis of Lincoln said that bounties also are proven to be fraught with fraud.
"It's well-determined in history that bountying is legalized fraud, and I know that money is an issue of concern to every person," Bullis said.
In addition, Bullis noted that the bounty statute allows for rewarding the killing of mountain lion kittens and wolf pups, and paying for that would smear the state's reputation.
"I question whether Montana values allow the killing of innocent lives," Bullis said. "I think that's certainly not reflective of the people in this room."
Another problem with the bounty is that mountain lions and gray wolves are managed as game animals by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That state agency sets quotas and hunting seasons; and, as the regulations now stand, shooting game animals like wolves and lions outside of the seasons, taking them without the required permits or killing more than the quota is illegal.
And, since only 145 wolves have been harvested out of the 220 quota this year -- with the season ending for most of Montana on Feb. 15 -- it's unclear whether the bounty would make a difference.
Vanna Boccadori, an FWP wildlife biologist, also urged patience, saying that the state agency has flexibility when it comes to wolf management.
They're being cautious about removing too many wolves from the landscape since FWP doesn't want to have them relisted as an endangered species and have the federal government once again take over their management. However, FWP officials also realize that there are limits to the number of wolves on the landscape that is socially acceptable, so they understand the need to decrease their population.
She estimated that, at this point, Montana probably is home to between 600 and 800 wolves. The state must maintain a minimum of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs to keep them from being considered for relisting.
Boccadori noted that FWP increased the quota this year, up from 75 in 2009 (the hunt was canceled due to lawsuits in 2010). FWP is considering extending the season in the Bitterroot Valley beyond the state's Feb. 15 deadline to remove more wolves and also may increase the mountain lion quota there, since an ongoing study seems to show they're the main predator in an area where the elk population has dropped precipitously.
FWP also could change the wolf management units by making them smaller and spreading out the quotas. Trapping is another option that could be considered, or they could allow hunters to take two wolves instead of just one.
"My guess is there will be a lot of things on the table," Boccadori said. "We recognize we need to be flexible and we may have to make changes."
Rancher Bob Sims said that, if a bounty won't work, he thinks that people hunting, fishing and sight seeing should compensate livestock producers for their losses. Those don't just include animals that are confirmed dead by federal agents, but also the weight loss for cattle that are stressed by large predators' presence.