One of the last bills to be heard in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee this legislative session is what state wildlife officials are calling a combination of some of the worst bills already heard.

On Tuesday, the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee heard Senate Bill 397, a bill dubbed “The Wildlife Recovery Act” by sponsor Sen. Scott Boulanger, R-Darby.

But 26 opponents testified that elk were the only wildlife favored by the bill, and it couldn’t guarantee their recovery either.

SB 397 would establish special hunting seasons for bears, lions and wolves in elk hunting districts where elk populations were less than the objectives set by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

If the elk population in a particular district was below objective for two years, special seasons would go into effect until the FWP commission was able to allow liberal elk hunting for two seasons.

“The FWP Elk Plan was written in 1992, before wolves,” Boulanger said. “If the elk population drops, FWP restricts the elk hunting season but does nothing further. This would trigger the next step: reducing predators.”

Boulanger said he used Idaho’s elk management plan as a template for his bill. The special seasons would allow unlimited numbers of licenses, allow the use of hounds to hunt black bears and lions, and extend the season duration. It would also allow the use of large Conibear traps for wolves.

Several earlier bills included such measures but most died in committee. For example, House Bill 144 would have allowed hounds to hunt bears, but it was tabled in committee after receiving significant opposition due to the threat to endangered grizzly bears.

Three witnesses from the Ravalli County area spoke in favor of the bill, including two members of the Missoula-based Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

MSFW Mike Colpo said Montana should follow Idaho’s example and use all means, including aerial hunting, to kill wolves.

“Hunter numbers are in decline so we need intense predator management,” Colpo said. “We’re speaking on behalf of the true sportsmen.”

But many other sportsmen disagreed, including representatives from the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, the Bitterroot Houndsmen, the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, the Montana Bowhunters and many others.

Bitterroot resident Steve Clevidence said the majority of Montana hunters believe in proper conservation practices.

“The greatest threat to hunting is a negative hunter image,” Clevidence said. “This goes against fair chase, adding fuel to an already raging fire.”

FWP Wildlife Bureau Chief Ken McDonald said FWP opposed the bill for a number of reasons that he’d outlined in testimony against other bills.

The bill mandates specific season structure and dates that should be left up to flexibility of the commission, McDonald said.

Seasons would be complicated, with adjacent districts under different rules. Trail cameras would be allowed for predators but could be used to hunt elk illegally.

It also stops the wolf season only when the number of wolves drops below 200, which is not part of the Wolf Plan that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to. That could set FWP up for action or a lawsuit to relist the wolf as endangered, McDonald said.

Of the 162 elk districts, 31 are below FWP objectives, and 26 of those contain grizzly bears, which could be injured in traps or run-ins with dogs.

“This bill assumes predation is the sole reason for elk population changes and could result in overharvest of predators,” McDonald said. “FWP is managing for a suite of species and the commission has the tools it needs.”

Gov. Steve Bullock already signed HB 73, which increases the number of wolf licenses allowed and allows electronic calls. Introduced on March 21, SB 397 passed the Senate late Friday with party-line votes on the floor and in committee.

Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, testified that Tuesday’s hearing broke the 72-hour transmittal rule.

Committee chair Jeffrey Welborn said the committee would vote on SB 397 on Thursday, when they would also hear the last bill before the April 18 deadline for all amended revenue bills.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com.

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