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Marshall Tate said that a few years ago he’d be deep in the backcountry elk hunting on a day like Saturday.

“But here I am — an elk-hunting guide in a wolf-trapping class. Wolves have basically put the outfitter out of business.”

Tate, a guide based out of Big Sky, drove to Billings to attend the session because the Region 3 classes were full. He said he was attending because he wants to learn more about wolves and managing them.

“I figure the more I learn about wolves, the better chances I will have with guiding,” Tate said. “The fact that I am here during what was typically the best time for elk hunting is indicative that guiding is a lot harder now. It’s not just the lower numbers of elk, but wolves have changed their patterns too, such as being more nocturnal.”

He jotted down notes in the margins of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wolf Trapper Education Handbook, which was handed out to the 44 students attending the wolf-trapping class held at the regional FWP office on Lake Elmo Drive.

The class was one of 28 mandatory certification classes around the state being offered for Montana’s first wolf-trapping season, which starts Dec. 15 and ends Feb. 28, 2013. A second class in Billings on Sunday is full. Each class is free but limited to 50 people.

Lots of attendees

The classes have garnered unpredicted levels of interest. In western Montana, class sizes were expanded and other classes were added to keep pace with strong enrollment.

“They have definitely filled fairly quickly,” said Vivaca Crowser, information officer for FWP in Missoula. “But people have been able to register almost until the day of.”

In Missoula’s Region 3 alone, 10 classes allowing 60 students are being offered. Across the state, 28 classes have been offered for 1,640 participants. As of Friday, only 161 seats were still open, not counting classes offered in Miles City and Havre, which had seen only nine people enroll in each class. Kalispell is offering the largest classes, open for up to 100 students.

Tom Barnes, president of the Montana Trappers Association, said the classes are popular for a simple reason.

“Because they want to get rid of the damn wolves,” he said. “A lot of us didn’t want wolves. And now that they are here, all that the citizens and sportsmen of Montana are asking is that we control the buggers.”

Although some Montanans may not want wolves in the state, Barnes said his group and FWP are “strongly concerned about the ethical treatment of our furbearers and we don’t want things to go south on us.”

Still unknown is how many people will actually trap after taking the class. Barnes said he is taking the class to receive the certification, but has no interest in trapping wolves.

In Idaho, where similar classes were offered for the first time last year, only 254 of the 963 people who took the class actually bought a trapping tag, according to Mike Keckler, Idaho Department of Fish and Game communications bureau chief. Those 254 trappers captured 124 wolves during the Nov. 15 to March 31 season.

Barnes said some people won’t take part simply because of the cost involved. Wolf traps can range from $50 to $125 each.

He noted that Montana already has a fairly large trapping community. His group has a membership of about 600 to 650 people, but he added that there are many people who trap who aren’t members of the group.

“And by and large, people may get some money for their hides, but they aren’t making a living from it,” said Bob Gibson, FWP communication and education program manager.

Wyatt Lehman, 18, has been trapping with his dad, Jay, since he was able to walk. He said they trap everything — beaver, raccoon, bobcat, coyote and fox — as a way to provide additional income.

“Yes, it’s a passion, but it also helps pay bills and put food on the table,” Lehman said. “With gas and food prices as high as they are, trapping is a good way to provide extra money to cover extra expenses.”

The Roberts-area resident may trap wolves in the future, but they said they attended the class to be prepared in the event they accidentally trap a wolf when intending to trap a different targeted animal.

“If there is a wolf in the area, I’d like to be qualified,” Jay Lehman said. “We do a lot of trapping, so this is more of a safety to avoid problems along the way.”

Another tool

Gibson said the FWP Commission recently approved Montana’s third wolf-hunting season and added a trapping season as a means of management. Along with Idaho, Montana is the second state in the lower 48 to allow public trapping of wolves.

“Trapping becomes another tool in our tool bag to help manage wolves,” Gibson said. “Wolves are part of our natural heritage and history — and the management of viable populations is an important element to this.”

The reintroduction of wolves was one more step in an effort to restore the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to something more like what it was before man shot, trapped and poisoned all, or nearly all, of the wolves out of the lower 48 states in the late 1920s and early ’30s. They have since reproduced and dispersed along corridors of wild land, and at the end of 2009, Fish and Wildlife Service counted a minimum of 1,706 wolves in the Northern Rockies. Today, Gibson said, there are more than 600 wolves and 39 breeding pairs with new packs being discovered regularly.

Under Montana’s current wolf management plan, wolves will not be reduced below 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs, Gibson said. That number, he said, would be the threshold for federal relisting of the wolf under the Endangered Species List.

Class instructor and FWP wolf specialist Mike Ross, of Bozeman, said trapping wolves is a huge change for wolf management.

“This is historic, and we are here to make sure the history is defined by Montanans,” Ross said. “Wolf trappers must be thoughtful and ethical and understand they are representing their fellow Montanans, hunters and trappers everywhere.”

Tate said prior to the class he had never been pro-trapping and had always assumed trapping was cruel.

“As a western hunter, I don’t want to see animals suffer,” Tate said. “But I learned a lot today. I had no idea that they can be released and the trap doesn’t break their leg. I had no idea that Fish and Wildlife use these same traps to collar and release the wolves.”

Certification topics included the history of wolves in Montana, the current status of wolves in the state, wolf management, the role of trapping in conservation, trapping ethics, trapping regulations, equipment, proper techniques to avoid trapping non-targeted species, caring for a harvested wolf, and reporting and registering one’s harvest.

To register for Sunday’s class, visit http://fwp.mt.gov/education/wolfTrapping/.

-- Gazette reporter Brett French contributed to this story.

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