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Montana Wildlife Commission To Discuss Limits Of New Wolf Hunting Laws

Gray wolf.
Gray wolf.

After legislation aimed at decreasing the wolf population passed this year, a five-member state commission will take the first steps on Thursday to decide how aggressively Montana will have wolves in its crosshairs. 

Bills signed into law this year allow neck snaring, night hunting, trap baiting and a longer wolf season, among other measures aimed at increasing hunter harvest of wolves. But the details of how the slew of new laws will impact hunters on the ground are up to the Fish and Wildlife Commission to decide.

That group finalizes hunting regulations, oversees fish and wildlife management and approves major land purchases and conservation easements. Members of the group are appointed to four-year terms by the governor, and Montana law dictates that those appointments must have no regard for political affiliation. Thursday’s meeting is the first high-profile hearing for the current board, which includes four picks from Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Earlier this month, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released its proposal for next year’s wolf season to the commission. Greg Lemon is a spokesperson with Montana FWP.

“The legislation gives us latitude to propose a range of options from more measured to more aggressive. And that's what we're doing,” Lemon says.

All the possibilities in the agency’s proposal will lead to a lower wolf population in the state, which was mandated by the laws passed this year — but they differ in where, how and when hunters can use the new measures. The option designed to have the lowest impact on the wolf population keeps season length the same as previous years and disallows night hunting and trap baiting, which were both legalized this year. The most expansive option extends wolf season by two weeks on each end, permits hunting at night on private land, and legalizes the baiting of traps statewide.

In all options, neck snaring, which is a source of controversy due to the potential for bycatch of animals from domestic dogs to grizzly bears, will be allowed only on private land this year. Lemon said that’s to mitigate conflict while trapper education catches up to the law.

“We don't really know for sure what kind of impacts that those tools are going to have. So we've got a backstop in case they become super effective,” Lemon says.

That backstop says that under any hunting scenario, if wolf harvest goes above 450 animals, the Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet to discuss changes to the season. That would mean killing about half the total number of wolves in the state before putting on the brakes.

“You can't just throw the doors wide open and then go too far, and then and then we'd be in a bad position for having, possibly having to reel things back in and tighten up restrictions. That doesn't do anybody any good,” Lemon says.

In May, environmental groups filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies, due to the legislation in Montana and Idaho mandating more wolf mortality.

Pat Tabor is a fish and wildlife commissioner from Whitefish. 

“I have never received more email on any singular topic of anything I've ever done in professional life or other than the wolf issue,” Tabor says.

He’s one of four commission members Gianforte appointed this year. All of them were approved by the Senate in a party-line vote. 

Tabor’s an outfitter, and Senate Democrats pressed to hear his nomination separately from the others due to concerns that he might give industry and wealthy out-of-staters too much voice on the commission. 

Democratic Senator Tom Jacobson from Great Falls spoke at the commissioners’ confirmation hearing.

“As we look at our composition of the entire board, we find it unacceptable that individuals with financial and commercial interests in public land are gonna be in charge of that,” Jacobson said.

Tabor says those fears are unfounded.

“Rather than characterizing it as a lean towards commercial interest, I'd say it's a lean towards everybody having a voice,” Tabor says.

Tabor says past commissions neglected the perspectives of commercial users of the land, and of private landowners. Gianforte’s other appointees are Lesley Robinson, a rancher, second vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, and Gianforte’s running mate from his 2016 gubernatorial campaign; K.C. Walsh, executive chairman at Simms Fishing and board member at the free-market think tank the Property and Environment Research Center; and Brian Cebull, an oil and gas executive and rancher, also on the board of the hunting group Safari Club International.

The only commission member remaining from the Bullock administration is Pat Byorth, who works for Trout Unlimited and served as a fisheries biologist for Montana FWP for more than a decade and a half. 

When Byorth looks at how the new administration is handling fish and wildlife management, he says, “It’s a new dawn.”

He says he and his colleagues are poised to make a balanced decision on wolf management, but the Gianforte administration is amplifying the voices of private landowners and industry above science-based wildlife management.

“You know, we're only six months in and you got to give them a chance to get their legs under them. But so far, I'm seriously worried. This is a full-on assault against wildlife,” Byorth says. 

He says the predator legislation is one example of a larger shift away from bedrock values that have guided wildlife management in the state for decades. He says those values include commitments to fair chase in hunting and managing wildlife in trust for all people of Montana, not just the privileged few.

“One of the most profound success stories, the most profound wildlife restoration has happened right here. And now we're going to turn our backs on that? That scares the daylights out of me,” Byorth says.

Gov. Gianforte is expected to expand his appointees on the commission with two new members this fall. That’s allowed under a bill signed into law this year that increased the number of commissioners from five to seven.

When Montana Public Radio asked what Gianforte hopes the Fish and Wildlife Commission can accomplish under his administration and why the voices represented on the commission are important to managing fish and wildlife in the state, governor’s office spokesperson Brooke Stroyke responded with a statement: 

“The Fish and Wildlife Commission addresses some of the most important issues facing Montana. The governor trusts these citizen commissioners to make wise decisions regarding management of Montana’s fish and wildlife.” 

The Fish and Wildlife Commission meets on Thursday, June 24, starting at 8:30am. The commission’s recommendation for the wolf season will go out for public comment before expected finalization in August.

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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