A meeting about Montana’s wolf population turned testy Wednesday night in Kalispell.
At one point, a man stood up amidst the sea of green camo, flannel and down and called out that he’s not advocating that everybody go out and buy poison. But, “If we have to kiss heiny to the Senate or whoever it is and get it done legislatively, maybe that’s what we ought to do.”
Wednesday’s was the third meeting in recent months hosted by a trio of hunting and trapping groups -- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management -- concerned that carnivores, and especially wolves, are depleting elk and deer in western Montana.
They’re calling on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to increase trapping opportunities and reimburse wolf trappers for their expenses in an effort to bring Montana’s wolf population down to 150 animals.
Glenn Schenavar is spearheading the wolf-reduction campaign.
"This initiative started out at Trout Creek, Montana with initially about five people, and has grown to what you see tonight."
Wednesday’s meeting drew more than 350 people. Many attendees, like Schenavar, say they’re not seeing elk and deer in the forests they grew up hunting and have come to distrust population estimates issued by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"Went out on my opening day of bow season. I cow-called in -- I was elk hunting -- I cow-called in five wolves up to the road, right at daylight. They never got within bow range. The ones below me winded me and they took off. And then as I walked down that road to the edge of the white pine drainage, I see nothing but wolf scat on the road with deer and elk hair in it. Thats in lies the problem."
But monitoring data from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks tell a different story.
"We're counting about the same number of elk we did over the last 30 years," says Neil Anderson, a wildlife program manager for FWP based in Kalispell.
"It’s hard for folks to say, ‘Well how can that possibly be, how can you count the same number of elk cause we're not seeing them in the field?’ Reality is, both those things can happen. And elk have changed -- in that area anyway -- how they're using the landscape. And so they may not be as available on some of those areas or in the same places where they used to be."
Anderson says it’s true grey wolves have flourished since they were removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 2011, thanks both to natural spread from Canada and reintroductions elsewhere in the state. And he says wolves certainly kill elk and play a role moving them around the landscape.
But he says other factors, like changes in habitat and available forage due to human development and wildfires, an increase in archery hunters and even other predators like mountain lions, need to be factored in.
"All those things affect how these animals use the landscape. And those are things we're trying to look at, look at the holistic view instead of just one aspect of it."
Anderson didn’t present Wednesday, but did answer questions. He and other FWP officials were booed by the crowd at a previous meeting in Trout Creek, according to a report in the Sanders County Ledger.
Anderson adds that the 150 population number those at the meeting want isn’t a management goal.
"We made an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the public process that we would not go below 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in the state."
With more than 600 wolves roaming the Northern Rockies and around Yellowstone National Park last year, the hunters and trappers say it’s time to reign them in. They’re backing legislation that aims to do that.
"Already there are 10 bills that have popped up before the Legislature. Got them in my hand here," says Mark Lambrecht with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, one of the sponsors of Wednesday’s meeting. For disclosure, I freelance for RMEF’s publication Bugle Magazine.
He described two bills from Rep. Bob Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls, that would add wolf tags to combination licenses for residents and non-residents to boost the number of license holders. A third bill would reimburse licensed wolf trappers for their costs.
"Something similar to what has been working in Idaho," Lambrecht says.
A non-profit called Foundation For Wildlife Management started offering reimbursements of up to $500 for Idaho wolf trappers in 2013. Last year, thanks to funds from RMEF and a grant from Idaho Fish and Game, the Foundation offered reimbursements up to $1,000 in some districts. The group doesn’t currently have a chapter in Montana but many at Wednesday’s meeting expressed interest.
The concerned hunters and trappers plan to host another meeting in the Bitterroot Valley sometime after the legislative session.