HELENA — Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will seek public input on a slate of possible new regulations for wolf hunting and trapping, after state lawmakers directed them to take steps to reduce the wolf population.
On Thursday, commissioners voted to move forward with the rules for the 2021 wolf seasons and quota. They made their initial motion very broad, to give time for people to weigh in on a variety of possible changes that could lead to more wolves being killed.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed three bills revising laws on harvesting wolves. Senate Bill 314, sponsored by Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, specifically tasked the commission with reducing Montana’s wolf population to “a sustainable level.” It authorized them to consider increasing the number of wolves someone can take with a single license, allowing the use of bait while hunting and trapping wolves, and permitting hunting wolves at night on private lands.
House Bill 224 and 225 were both sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. HB 224 required the commission to allow the use of snares for wolf trapping, and HB 225 said they could extend the wolf trapping season.
During Thursday’s meeting, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff presented commissioners with a variety of options on how aggressively to use these new tools. They also made several additional recommendations, including limiting snares to private land and extending the trapping season only in areas where it wouldn’t interfere with grizzly bears or lynx – primarily in eastern Montana.
Ken McDonald, FWP’s Wildlife Division administrator, said it’s likely all of the new changes the Legislature authorized would lead to more wolves being harvested, but it’s still not known exactly how big the change would be. In 2020, the agency reports 328 wolves were taken. They recommended that, if more than 450 are taken under the new rules, the commission hold a special meeting to decide whether to make any immediate changes.
Commissioners said they didn’t want to make any decisions on specific regulations before the public had a chance to give feedback on each proposed change.
“We would like to see proponents, opponents, but very specific, and as much constructive comments as we can around what we are tasked to do by the Legislature,” said commissioner Brian Cebull.
FWP currently estimates Montana’s wolf population is around 900 to 950. Supporters of increased hunting and trapping say that is far too high. They’re concerned more wolves could lead to smaller populations of elk and other game animals, and to more attacks on livestock.
Fielder spoke at the meeting as a proponent of the new regulations, but said he actually thought FWP’s recommendations weren’t going far enough to reduce wolf numbers. He said he especially wanted to see more liberal hunting and trapping rules in western and southwestern Montana – FWP Regions 1, 2 and 3.
“We left some discretion up to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the commission, but if you do not address the wolves in Region 1, 2 and 3, where 90 percent of the wolves are, you’re failing to meet the legislative intent,” he said.
Opponents of the expanded options for taking wolves said they’re not necessary, that they go against traditional hunting ethics and that they could harm other species.
“We already have sufficient wolf management; we have plenty of opportunities to kill wolves,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “The population is stable now, so we don’t see a need to implement these seasons.”
Representatives from several environmental groups indicated Thursday that they were planning legal challenges over the new rules.
A 30-day public comment period on the proposed regulations will open on June 26. FWP will also take comments at an online public meeting June 30. The agency will post information on how to comment here.
The commission is expected to finalize the regulations for the next wolf season at their meeting on Aug. 20.