Legislators oppose changes to wolf management, hatchery trout

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks requested state legislators’ blessings for a dozen proposed bills, but two dealing with wolves and trout didn’t get the nod.

On Thursday, FWP Director Jeff Hagener stepped the Environmental Quality Council through 12 bills that would either improve FWP procedures or help preserve a few species. But Hagener got an earful from Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, when he described a bill intended to allow the Fort Peck Hatchery to produce a few more cold-water fish.

Currently, the hatchery has ponds for raising warm-water species such as walleye and raceways for cold-water species such as chinook salmon. But the law caps the number of cold-water fish the hatchery can contain at 750,000 a year, partly as a nod to anglers who wanted only warm-water species when the hatchery was built more than a decade ago.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the hatchery for both warm- and cold-water species in the early 2000s, but many of the cold-water raceways have sat idle. Now, the Corps is making some changes to where the hatchery gets its water. The old intakes plugged up with silt, so they will be re-positioned to pull in colder, cleaner water, Hagener said. 

“This would not affect the warm water fishery at all. You would not be taking one for the other,” Hagener said. "We do stock some of those ponds in the far eastern part of the state with trout, and we bring those fish all the way from Great Falls. So it would be more efficient to bring them from Fort Peck."

Brenden said he remembered when the hatchery went in and wouldn’t support more cold-water fish at Fort Peck. He told Hagener to hold public meetings on it first.

“There was a big war out there. By changing this, we’re going to create a war again,” Brenden said. “I’m for the warm-water fishery, because it’s been slighted in the fight between trout and warm-water fish. It just seems to be another slap in the face to eastern Montana and to Fort Peck.”

The committee voted against approving the bill 11-5. That means it won’t be entered early in the roster of bills, and FWP will have to find a legislator that will carry the bill without the backing of the EQC.

The other bill that failed 7-9 seeks to allow FWP more flexibility in its management of wolves now that the wolf has been off the Endangered Species list for more than five years. The bill would eliminate the requirement to spend $500,000 annually on wolf management and would allow the agency to spend license money on more than just collaring and lethal removal.

“We don’t believe we’d change much in the way we’re doing things now. This would just allow more flexibility to be able to do more,” Hagener said.

Sen. Smith said he wanted the money to continue to help livestock producers that are suffering.

“If we change this, we’d end up with more dollars being spent for range riders and behavior modification things that are becoming of interest,” Smith said. “There was a lot of discussion last session about nonlethal methods.”

The other bills were mostly basic modifications and prompted few questions or opposition from the committee. They were approved on a vote of 12-4 and include:

1.     Remove “civet cats” from the list of predatory animals that can be trapped without a license. Actually, civet cats don’t exist in North America, but the term is used to refer to the spotted skunk, which is being considered for endangered species protection.

2.     Due to the effort to eliminate the Tendoy bighorn sheep herd, FWP wants to reduce the waiting period for a bighorn sheep license for those willing to hunt ewes. The waiting period would remain those wishing to hunt rams.

3.     Allow hunters to carry a digital version of their game tags on their smartphones.

4.     To prevent bucket biologists from planting fish illegally, commercial hatchery managers would have to verify that private individuals requesting fish have a legal pond permit.

5.     Extend the sunset date on existing legislation that allows Glendive to harvest and sell paddlefish eggs in order to raise money for conservation and other causes.

6.     Correct laws prohibiting hunting with lights to include the related penalities.

7.     Reinstate legislation that ended in 2015 that allowed Montana’s tribes to receive two bison permits each if they don’t have treaty rights to hunt bison.

Three bills proposed by the Private Lands Public Wildlife committee also move forward.

1.     Allow landowners who allow four hunters on their property to get a license and permit.

2.     Increase the payment cap to $15,000 for landowners who participate in the Block Management Program. The cap currently sits at $12,000.

3.     Combine the “Come Home to Hunt” license and the Native Montanan Nonresident license because they’re so similar.