The two new members of the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission got off to an easy start on Friday with minimal public comment on wolves, lions and grizzly bears. But wolves still sparked discussion.
Commission chair Dan Vermillion praised an FWP proposal to finally include wolves in the regular season-setting agenda that comes before the commission every two years.
“Our goal has always been for wolves to be treated much like other wildlife,” said chair Dan Vermillion. “It’s neat to see that it’s now part of the same discussion as elk quotas and elk seasons.”
As part of the proposal, FWP would keep all the wolf quotas and the season the way they are for the upcoming season, and then review them every two years instead of every year as they have been since wolves were delisted in 2011.
For the 2017-2018 season, that means no quota except in two districts north of Yellowstone National Park where the quota will remain at two wolves. Every hunter/trapper can take up to five wolves.
If particular wolves are a threat, landowners can kill a total of up to 100 wolves, but after the first 25, the commission must approve each subsequent increment of 25 under the rules created in 2013 by Senate Bill 200. Over each of the past three years, landowners have shot between six and 12 wolves. Livestock owners can always shoot wolves that are actively attacking livestock.
No one opposed the proposal, however three people asked for changes, namely reductions in the SB200 total and in the number of animals each hunter can kill. They thanked the department from keeping the wolf quota outside Yellowstone Park at two but pointed out that the wolf population has declined somewhat since trapping was approved in 2012.
Wolves of the Rockies spokesman Marc Cooke also asked that trappers be required to check their traps every 24 hours rather than every 48.
“We would like to see the season dialed back a bit. I’m not sure of this year’s wolf count numbers, but I suspect it will be around 600 wolves. Elk depredation is down at least on behalf of wolves,” Cooke said. “If we had a 24-hour trap check, damage done by traps… the longer they’re in the trap, the more damage is sustained, especially in cold weather.”
Cooke was also concerned about the possibility of the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management moving into Montana. In January, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation once again gave FWM a grant of $25,000. With a mission "to promote ungulate population recovery in areas negatively impacted by wolves", the organization offers hunters up to $1,000 per wolf "for expenses." To prevent people in Montana from killing wolves for money, Cooke said, the quota for hunters should drop from five wolves to one.
“The reality of this drive to kill wolves at all costs has several obvious consequences. First, it undermines the authority of the commission. Second, it undermines the department’s authority to manage wildlife. Third, this is nothing more than private management of wildlife on public lands. This is unacceptable,” Cooke said.
Vermillion asked whether it was legal to offer a private bounty in Montana. FWP attorney Rebecca Dockter said counties could offer bounties but she needed to research private bounties.
Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman Erin Edge and Greater Yellowstone Coalition Shana Drimal said Montana has been trying to drive the wolf population down but should adjust quotas to manage for stable population if instituting a two-year review cycle.
“We still don’t have a numeric objective for this population and perhaps it’s time that one be determined,” Drimal said.
Former commissioner Gary Wolfe said the commission set the SB200 quota at 100 wolves three years ago but the most that have been killed in any year is 12. He asked that the quota be reduced to 50.
“That’s still five times what the harvest has been, but it sends a better message,” Wolfe said.
The commission gave the proposal initial approval and now it goes out to public comment.
Wolfe told the two new commissioners, Greg Tollefson of Missoula and Logan Brower of Scobey, that they had an easy first meeting compared to the way wolf and grizzly bear proposals played out four or five years ago.
Tollefson and Brower, along with Richard Stucker and Matthew Tourtlotte, are up for confirmation in the Legislature as commissioners. Tollefson has decades of experience with land trusts but is best known for writing a weekly outdoors newspaper column. Brower hales from Idaho but teaches school in Scobey.
Yesterday, Tollefson and Stucker attended their Senate FWP committee confirmation hearing as part of Senate Resolution 64. Stucker, who represents livestock producers on the commission, had a number of supporters, including Cooke and Montana Outfitters and Guides Association executive director Mac Minard, who attested to his dedication and fairness.
SR 64 hasn’t been passed yet, and commission candidates have been rejected in the past, including former commission chair Bob Ream. The new FWP director, Martha Williams, was approved on Wednesday by only a 7-4 vote, with Sens. Jennifer Fielder, Jedediah Hinkle, David Howard and Cary Smith opposed.
The commissioner candidates are likely to see a similar vote.