Two northwest Montana lawmakers are considering a number of bills that could moderately or significantly change the way Montana manages wolves.
Sen. Bob Brown and Rep. Paul Fielder, both Republicans from Thompson Falls, have drafted legislation ranging from including wolf licenses in big game combination licenses and expanding trapping seasons to reclassifying the animals as predators similar to coyotes, meaning they could be killed year-round without a license. Other bill proposals include legalizing snares for wolf trappers and allowing private reimbursement for those who successfully harvest a wolf.
“Basically every drainage you go into you find wolves and the packs just keep expanding,” Brown said of the areas he hunts. “With elk and deer numbers, you’re not seeing them up in the hills. You might still see quite a few but they’re pushed down out of the hills and onto private land.”
After reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s as well as natural expansion in the Rocky Mountain West, wolves were first delisted from the Endangered Species Act in Montana and Idaho in 2008 but remained under federal listing in Wyoming due to concerns about the adequacy of the latter's management plan, which allowed unlimited hunting in much of that state.
After Montana's first hunting season in 2009 a federal judge restored federal protections, saying the three states' wolf populations could not be split up. A 2011 rider from Sen. Jon Tester essentially reversed that decision, bringing back state management to Montana and Idaho. After delisting in 2012 and relisting in 2014, wolves were delisted in Wyoming in 2017.
Montana's current estimated wolf population is about 850 animals statewide with the highest densities in the northwest.
A decade after Montana resumed state management of wolves, including hunting and trapping seasons, management and legislation continues to be controversial. The 2019 Legislature saw a number of wolf-related bills, including successful legislation from Brown to reduce the cost of wolf licenses but also unsuccessful and more contentious bills for hunting wolves at night and the reimbursement program.
Brown said in an interview he plans to introduce two bills this session: a version of the reimbursement bill as well as a bill that would re-classify wolves in the state as predators.
The reimbursement bill gained attention in 2019 as opponents characterized it as a “bounty” on the animals. The concept was based in part on the Foundation for Wildlife Management, which operates a program in Idaho using privately raised funds to pay successful wolf trappers from $500 to $1,000 based on where the animal is harvested.
Brown disputed the characterization of the bill as creating a bounty on wolves. His bill would legalize reimbursement from either an organization or an individual, meaning those successfully harvesting a wolf would need to provide receipts for expenses.
“It’s a reimbursement for receipts, so it’s not a bounty,” Brown said. “You’re not going out and getting a new snowmobile for taking a wolf, but it would free up some of these groups that have expressed interest.”
State officials in 2019 testified that it is currently legal to compensate “effort” but not success. For example, a landowner could pay a trapper to trap wolves on a piece of property but could not pay a fee per wolf harvested.
Brown’s other bill to re-classify wolves would fundamentally change how the animals are managed in Montana.
Species classifications have direct implications to how and when the animals may be killed. Wolves, currently designated a species in need of management, require hunting licenses, and may only be hunted during daylight hours and trapping requires special training. Wildlife officials and ranchers may also kill wolves preying on livestock.
Brown’s bill would shift that classification to “predator,” meaning the animals could be killed year-round without a license. Brown noted that one program that would not change under the bill is compensation for livestock killed by wolves.
Fielder, a retired wildlife biologist and trapper education instructor, has requested drafting of multiple wolf and trapping bills this session. He had not decided which bills to introduce, he said in an interview during the Legislature's second week.
Hunters in northwest Montana held public meetings in 2019 to talk about wildlife management and the feedback was an “overpopulation” of wolves affecting deer and elk numbers, Fielder said.
“The main emphasis of those meetings is there are too many wolves and their numbers should be reduced to save deer, elk and moose,” he said. “Region 1 (northwest Montana) brought some of those recommendations to the commission and they pretty much were not passed, so I’m trying to champion some of those ideas that came out of my region.”
Trapping of wolves in Montana is currently limited to leg-hold traps. Under one draft bill from Fielder, snares would be allowed.
Another bill would include a wolf license when hunters purchase big game combination licenses, which typically include general deer and elk tags along with upland bird and fishing and an optional black bear license.
Fielder also drafted a bill to set wolf trapping seasons as starting the Monday after Thanksgiving and closing March 15. The current season runs from Dec. 15 to Feb. 28.
The lone trapping-related bill Fielder has introduced early in the session would drop the requirement for written permission to trap on private land to allow verbal permission. The bill would also drop a requirement that trappers attaching required metal identification tags to snares include a phone number.
Fielder had requested bills to allow hunting wolves at night and to expand individual quotas, but those requests were placed on hold.
Fielder believed the bills he was considering would not hamstring the state but would add flexibility for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to manage wolves and trapping.
“Some will like (these bills) and some won’t,” Fielder said, adding that he believes the recent election shows an interest among constituents to bring this type of legislation.
Jim Buell, president of the Montana Trappers Association, said the organization's board of directors endorsed snares for wolves in 2010. In places where they are allowed such as Idaho, Canada and Alaska, snares used for wolves have been very successful at harvesting the animals.
“If you ask any Canadian or Alaskan wolf trapper and they’ll tell you it’s the most effective way,” he said.
Buell did not personally see issues with other draft legislation, but that could change depending on revisions during introduction or amendments. The organization's board of directors had not taken a position on the bills yet, he said.
The association is supporting a bill carried by Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, which would make trapper education mandatory similar to hunter education. A class for trapping wolves is already mandatory.
Jay Bodner with the Montana Stockgrowers Association said that while his organization typically does not weigh in on bills that deal with methods of take and although a number of programs have developed to help alleviate predation on livestock, some ranchers in Montana continue to face significant issues wolves.
“I think it was somewhat anticipated that we’d see an uptick in wolf bills and from the perspective of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, we do have producers that face a lot of depredation” he said.
The Stockgrowers are supporting a bill brought by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Kevin, that would allow the Montana Livestock Loss Board to incorporate a “multiplier” when compensation for livestock killed by wolves, bears or mountain lions. The multiplier allows payment for both confirmed and probable predations based on board-determined regions.
One important question Bodner had was in regards to Brown’s bill to re-classify wolves a predators. Based on the history of delisting the animals, his organization would not want to see a return to federal oversight.
“With state management authority, we would not want to put that in jeopardy,” he said. “It hasn’t been our policy to push to classify wolves as a predator, but we do look at ways to reduce depredation.”
Marc Cooke, president of the Bitterroot Valley-based advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies, said he was shocked by the number and nature of wolf-related bills this session and felt it was part of a strategy of annihilation rather than sound management.
“I knew it was going to be bad but I didn’t realize it was going to be this bad,” Cooke said. “I just didn’t realize the amount of hatred towards wolves – I’ve just never seen anything like it.”
Cooke feels there is already plenty of latitude when it comes to both hunting and trapping wolves, and that does not include wolves killed for preying on livestock and poaching. He further believes the state overestimates the number of wolves and that the population is likely trending down already. The direction being taken could see federal protections for wolves returned, he said.
“At the end of the day, the numbers will be driven so low that in my eyes we’ll do everything possible to trigger a review and relisting under the Endangered Species Act,” he said.
Stephen Capra, executive director of the anti-trapping organization Footloose Montana, shared a similarly dim view of the bills.
“I think that I’m not necessarily surprised, but I am disturbed by this wholesale effort to eliminate wolves from Montana,” he said, agreeing that Brown’s predator bill could lead to federal protections.
Wolves represent an important element of a healthy ecosystem, Capra said, and increasing trapping and snaring ignores the many Montanans and visitors who enjoy wildlife watching and pose safety concerns for other recreationists.
“Not everyone wants to go out and trap and snare wildlife, they want to see them and take pictures,” he said. “This is taking mob rule to our public lands that’s not based on any science. It’s based on scapegoating an animal and creating a symbol for a culture war.”
Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation said his organization supports “ethical and fair-chase hunting and trapping of wolves,” and helped author the 2011 congressional rider that delisted them. He disagreed that the proposed legislation is an avenue to Endangered Species Act listing.
“That would take a pretty dramatic reduction in their numbers for that to happen, so it’s fairly unlikely,” he said.
The federation opposes legislation that would cement hunting or trapping seasons into law and believes the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission is the better venue for season-setting. On Fielder's bill to establish a longer trapping season, he noted that the commission already has the authority to do so and that one of the reasons for the current season dates is to set traps when bears are likely hibernating.
“If they feel like there’s a need to alter the seasons in Western Montana then take that to the commission,” Gevock said. “They have that broad authority under Montana law.”
This story has been updated to clarify House Bill 138 and to correct the current wolf trapping season dates.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.