After backing off on parts of a May proposal, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission declined to make any further changes to the 2013 wolf-hunting season.
On Wednesday, after a 30-day comment period and more than an hour of verbal comments at their Helena meeting, FWP commissioners voted to approve slightly modified regulations that will apply to Montana’s fourth wolf season beginning in September.
Commission chair Dan Vermillion said FWP and the commission listened to the public and tried to find middle ground between those who want to curtail or eliminate wolf hunting and those who want more liberal wolf hunts.
FWP received almost 25,000 comments, four times as many as were received for the first season, probably partially prompted by the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisting announcement.
“Every single year, you think it’s going to get easier, and every single year, we seem to find ourselves in the same spot,” Vermillion said.
Most of the changes proposed a month ago remain, including keeping a general statewide season rather than using district quotas and allowing a hunter or trapper to kill up to five wolves.
“We’re still pretty new at this, and the most important thing is learning and adjusting as we go. But we ended last season well above requirements, and we think we can expand harvest opportunity,” said FWP wildlife chief Ken McDonald.
Last season, hunters were limited to one wolf tag until February, near the end of the season, when new state legislation bumped the limit to three.
That legislation also allows hunters to use electronic calls, and a short archery season will run a week before the general rifle season, which is 45 days longer than last year, running from Sept. 15 to March 15.
Many commenters objected to a proposed closing date of March 30, because it pushed the season too close to when wolves are pregnant with pups.
Strong public comment also caused FWP to eliminate a section that would have allowed hunters to kill wolves attracted to bait set out by trappers.
“Because of confusion over what that meant, we’ve withdrawn that,” McDonald said.
Trappers accounted for almost half of the 225 wolves killed in this past season. Wildlife Service agents killed another 108 due to livestock conflicts.
This year, to avoid catching endangered species such as lynx or wolverine, trappers must set their trap tension so animals exerting less than 10 pounds don’t trigger traps. They must also immediately shoot a trapped wolf, rather than killing it by other means.
On Wednesday, much of the criticism centered on the proposal’s lack of protection for wolves around Yellowstone Park, but the legislation that increased the wolf bag limit also banned creating no-hunt buffer zones around national parks.
So the FWP proposal set quotas of two to three wolves for two management areas adjacent to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
Hunters are limited to one wolf tag in these areas to prevent a single hunter or trapper from filling the quota. The commission can close the areas once the quotas are reached.
In response to concern over the killing of several Yellowstone Park wolves this winter, FWP added a third management area – 313 - north of Yellowstone Park near Gardiner and set its quota at four wolves.
Many commenters, including Kim Bean of Wolves of the Rockies and naturalist guide Gail Richardson of Bozeman, wanted the quotas of one in those areas, because killing seven wolves outside the park could wipe out a pack. They also asked for protection for collared wolves.
“I’m appalled that Montana hasn’t created a buffer zone around the park,” Richardson said. “People pay to come here to see wildlife.”
But Bob Shepherd of Ovando supported the proposal.
“As far as a buffer around the park, where would it stop? Once wolves find that it’s safe there, you’d have to move it farther out,” Shepherd said.
Commissioner Gary Wolfe proposed an amendment to decrease the quota of Area 313 to three wolves.
“I’m not concerned with the viability of the wolf population, but I am concerned about the effect on the non-consumptive wildlife industry of the park,” Wolfe said.
Commissioner Richard Stuker voted with Wolfe, but Vermillion and Commissioner Matthew Tourlotte opposed the amendment. Commissioner Lawrence Wetsit was absent, so the amendment didn’t pass.
Vermillion said he’d like to get the wildlife viewers, the non-consumptive users, more involved.
“I suggested that they buy wolf tags,” Vermillion said. “It would show the numbers of people behind non-consumptive use.”
The commission will meet on Dec. 10 to review the mid-season kills and decide whether area closures or other changes are necessary.