Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed two bills into law designed to reduce the wolf population in Montana. The new laws extend the wolf trapping season by four weeks and allow wolf trappers to use neck snares.
"It seems like wildlife managers need another tool to manage wolf populations," he said.
The latest population data show just over 1,100 wolves in Montana, concentrated almost entirely in the western half of the state. Fielder said that’s more than four times the minimum for a recovered population set by wildlife managers
After more than 30 years of protection under the Endangered Species Act and legal turmoil over their fate, wolves were delisted in Montana in 2011 and returned to state management, which allows for hunting and trapping. That came after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, and other wolves from Canada naturally recolonized parts of the state.
Since the reintroduction, Fielder said high concentrations of wolves in Northwest Montana have depressed elk numbers.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks data show that the elk population in that region is at its management objectives for a healthy population. Across the state, the elk population has grown over the last two and a half decades.
The trapping bills were signed by Gianforte less than a month after the Mountain West News Bureau reported the governor was cited by FWP for illegally trapping and killing a wolf in the Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park. Gianforte had not taken a required trapping education course.
During a press conference in March, Gianforte said harvesting a wolf in Montana was an honor.
"I’ve been trapping for nearly 50 years, I started when I was just a tot. Again, I think it’s an integral part of our heritage and an important tool in predator control and wildlife management."
The bills are supported by trapping and outfitting organizations, and agriculture groups.
"Due to the current population of wolves and the declining ungulate population in parts of Montana, this is an effective management tool that is needed to manage for both species," Mike Colpo, with Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said during a committee meeting in February.
Nick Gevock, conservation director at Montana Wildlife Federation, said Montana’s set a high standard in wildlife management for decades, but, "This really sets us backward."
Gevock said MWF supports ethical, fair-chase hunting of wolves. But MWF wrote the governor to request a veto on the bills.
Gevock said the two bills might not have a huge impact on the wolf population but a bigger issue is the unintended byproduct of neck snaring and a longer season: animals like deer, elk, mountain lions, and grizzly bears that could get also snagged in the traps. He said the Fish and Wildlife Commission is better equipped to make wolf management decisions than the Legislature.
"This is just part of an overall anti-predator fervor this session that is really over the top and really unnecessary."
Last month, 49 wildlife biologists, including 16 retired FWP employees, signed a letter saying the two wolf bills signed by Gianforte on Friday, along with others that would impact the management of wolves and other large carnivores in the state are based on misinformation and would "harm the image of hunters and hunting in Montana."
One of those other, wolf-specific bills, Senate Bill 267, which would allow hunters to be reimbursed for the cost of hunting and trapping wolves, has passed the Legislature and is on its way to Gianforte's desk.