Commission denies wolf-quota increase, forwards grizzly hunt

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks tried to justify a big jump in a Gardiner-area wolf quota, but after lengthy public comment, the Fish and Wildlife commission didn’t buy it.

On a 3-1 vote, the commission decided against an FWP proposal to increase the wolf-hunt quota to six in Management Unit 313 , even though the six would be meted out over time. The period of September 4 through November 30 would have a limit of three wolves and another three would be allowed between December 1 and March 15.

Commissioner Richard Stuker said Unit 313 is not just an average hunting area because the Gardiner area also hosts many of the tourists who come to see wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. In addition, Stuker said, the elk population is above objective in 313, based upon the most recent count released a few weeks ago.

“I think six is probably too high,” Stuker said. “I did second the motion (to set last year’s quota at two) because when I look at a lot of the different issues in 313, we have non-consumptive or wildlife-viewing people who do have a right within the state. And if I was looking at this map and the elk objective was at 50 percent, I would probably propose we go higher than six.”

Fifteen people agreed with Stuker during the public comment period, including Gardiner business owners and representatives from conservation groups.

Several people questioned FWP’s wolf count of 29 in 313 because many wolves aren’t residents of 313 but are transients from packs in the park. FWP Big Game Chief John Vore said FWP wants to kill more wolves to stabilize the population, but opponents said the wolf population in the park has stabilized over the past few years without hunting. If anything, said Marc Cooke of Wolves of the Rockies, the wolf population was dwindling slightly because of poaching outside the park so the quota didn’t need to increase. People also pointed out the elk population issues in 313 wasn’t due to wolves, because elk herds that live with wolves in the park are healthy.

Meanwhile, a dozen hunters and outfitters and one legislator, Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, rose to support the quota increase.

Mac Minard, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association executive director, said outfitting was a big part of the area’s economy so it should be considered alongside wildlife watching. Minard also suggested that wolves might start affecting the survival of moose in the area.

“We support biologically sound management, and if there’s the opportunity to take a few more wolves, then we support that,” Minard said.

However, one Gardiner resident, Edwin Johnson, appeared to go too far when he suggested that the commissioners were trading a low wolf quota for political favors and that they were allowing increased federal control over Montana’s resources.

Commissioners Stuker and Ron Tourtlotte made it clear that unfounded accusations were not appropriate during public comment.

“It’s offensive to the commission that you’ve insinuated our votes were part and parcel to political action committee money. I think that’s a ridiculous statement. This commission has always placed a value on (313) – it’s not a secret. It sits on top of an iconic place, not only to Montana but to the nation. So this commission has spent a lot of time and a lot of consternation trying to strike a balance. I think that last comment crossed a line,” Tourtlotte said.

Stuker proposed maintaining the status quo of two wolves in 313 and the motion passed. It will now go out to public comment.

Commissioner Dan Vermillion was the only one who voted to put the six-wolf quota out to public comment. He repeated the philosophy that he’d raised on three of the commission’s other votes: Whether or not he approved of something, it was important to let the public weigh in.

That was the reason the commission gave initial approval to FWP’s proposed framework for the grizzly bear hunting season and the Memorandum of Agreement that would coordinate the management actions of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, should the grizzly bear be delisted in the greater Yellowstone area.

Vore said once the hunt was instituted, Montana would have to share the take with Idaho and Wyoming so at most, hunters could kill 10 bears and many years, they would be allowed to kill less. The seven hunting districts would border Yellowstone Park.

Commissioner Gary Wolfe pointed out a number of inconsistencies in the Memorandum of Agreement that didn’t jibe with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting rule.

“Since we know this will be litigated, you should take the exact language out of the rule and put it in the MOA. You should minimize opportunities for this to be challenged,” Wolfe said.

Sixteen people argued against the hunt season framework, saying a hunting season should be delayed until the agency had time to consider ways to improve connectivity between populations.

Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation said it was good to see the three states working together, unlike what happened with the wolf delisting.

“But Montana is different – it sits in the center of all the grizzly bear populations. When we talk about connectivity, it is a different issue for Montana. Montana needs to step up here because it has more bears and more populations. What Montana does will have a greater bearing on how this second effort at delisting bears out,” France said.

Vermillion said Montana has always set the standard for managing difficult species and he thought FWP is up to the task with grizzly bears.

“Even if we approve this framework, there will be no hunt this fall. It won’t happen until after the next season setting process. The idea of a bear hunt in 2017 is a stretch,” Vermillion said. “Even though the bears are doing well now, we recognize they’re not like wolves. But much like this commission did (with the wolf) in 2007, when we asked you, “Let us show you we can do this,” let us show you that we can do it in a reasonable way that respects the dignity of the bear and respects the fact that it is an important economic asset of this state.”

The commission will make a final decision on the grizzly bear hunt in July.