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Montana Adopts ‘Aggressive’ Wolf Hunting Regulations

Grey wolf
iStock

The battle over the future of wolves in Montana reached a milestone late last week when a state committee finalized wolf regulations for the 2021-2022 season. The new rules permit “aggressive” hunting measures not seen for decades.

The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 3-2 to increase wolf harvest by allowing neck snaring and trap baiting statewide, night hunting on private land and other changes to the season.

The vote follows direction from the 2021 Legislature requiring state agencies to decrease wolf numbers and legalizing new hunting measures to do so. Testimony on behalf of the suite of bills targeting wolves cited depressed elk numbers and hunter success in wolf-heavy areas of the state.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates about 1,200 wolves in Montana and almost 140,000 elk.

FWP offered a spectrum of possibilities for this year’s wolf season, from options that would limit the newly-legalized measures, to a more aggressive hunt. Those options received more than 26,000 public comments since June. A majority of them opposed a more aggressive wolf hunt.

“My largest concern is that we are selling our souls and our fair chase in order to provide methods that are unnecessary and more likely to have repercussions.”
Pat Byorth, Montana Fish and Wildlife Commissioner

The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission was tasked with figuring out the specifics of how this season’s hunt should proceed, and chose nearly all of the more “aggressive” options.

“We know that we have a responsibility to manage this population, but from my perspective we need to manage it responsibly,” said Pat Tabor, who voted in favor of the new rules to expand wolf hunting.

The rules also include backstops: Neck snaring is prohibited in areas federally designated as grizzly bear recovery zones. If more than 450 total wolves are killed, or region-specific numbers dictated by wolf population, the commission will meet to discuss if and how the season proceeds. The same is true if a hunter accidentally catches a lynx or grizzly bear, which are both federally protected species.

Pat Byorth voted against the proposal. Byorth is the only commissioner who is a holdover appointee from former Gov. Steve Bullock; the rest of the commission was appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. Byorth said the new measures run at odds to long-established hunting ethics and fair chase in Montana.

“My largest concern is that we are selling our souls and our fair chase in order to provide methods that are unnecessary and more likely to have repercussions.”

Wolves were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. But after reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s and natural migration from Canada, populations made a recovery. Federal protections were removed in Montana in 2011, and hunting has been part of how the state manages the species ever since.

wolf-reintroduction-02-(Jim-Peaco-CC-BY-2.0).jpg
Jim Peaco
Grey wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Jim Buell of the Montana Trappers Association spoke at the commission meeting on Friday.

“Allowing snares to be used for wolves is nothing new. It’s just one additional tool that the trapper can use to harvest these critters.”

Hunters and trappers at the meeting stressed education measures already in the works for trappers using snares, and said much of the public pushback to the new measures stemmed from opposition to hunting in general, not the specifics of what was on the table.

“The proponents will universally be seeking simply a balance; a balance between having wolves on the landscape — which they want — and a balance between enhanced ungulate populations for the purpose of hunting.”
Mac Minard, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association

Mac Minard is with Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

“The proponents will universally be seeking simply a balance; a balance between having wolves on the landscape — which they want — and a balance between enhanced ungulate populations for the purpose of hunting.”

Before the wildlife commission’s vote Friday, only foot traps were legal in Montana. Hunters say neck snares — thin loops of wire designed to snag around the throat — change the game for hunting wolves, since they’re light, cheap, and can be used effectively in snow, which can cover up foot traps. But opponents of snares say they’re inhumane and can catch unintended animals.

Gov. Gianforte, who earlier this year violated state hunting rules and received a warning for trapping a wolf without taking a required education certification class, signed the bills into law that expanded wolf hunting. He said wildlife managers need more ways to manage wolf populations.

Public comments at the wildlife commission meeting last week were dominated by anti-hunt voices and at times grew heated and personal towards members of the commission.

Stephen Capra with Footlose Montana, said the conflict was more about politics than science.

“God have mercy on your soul!”

Conservation groups filed a petition to reestablish federal protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year. In May, over 100 wildlife biologists wrote the federal government to support that petition, saying wolves need protection.

Last week, the Biden administration signaled support for the decision under former President Donald Trump to delist all wolves in the lower 48 states. However, a top wildlife official told the Associated Press that some of the new hunting measures proposed in Montana, Idaho and Wisconsin were “concerning.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to respond to that petition later this month.

Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, spoke at the commission meeting.

“President Biden, Secretary Haaland, relist American wolves before it’s too late. Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this slaughter. You people disgust me.”

Legal threats also loomed throughout the meeting. A coalition of more than a half dozen environmental groups filed a 60-day notice-of-intent to sue over the then-proposed measures in June. More lawsuits are expected to follow.

“We will see you in court,“ Trap Free Montana’s KC York said.

Wolf season begins late this fall.

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