A wolf is shown in this photo from the National Park Service.

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Bills that would allow private groups to reimburse hunters and trappers for killing wolves and authorize an unlimited number of wolf kills per license holder are inching closer to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bills 267 and 314, both sponsored by Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, cleared the Montana Senate on March 2. The bills on Tuesday went before the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee .

SB 267 would allow private groups to reimburse people for costs incurred from hunting or trapping wolves. All money from reimbursements would come from private wolf contest sponsors, not public funds, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

SB 314 would allow the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to let trappers and hunters kill an unlimited number of wolves with a single license. It would also permit the use of bait for hunting wolves and authorize the wolf hunts at night on private land.

Brown emphasized that SB 267 alone won’t authorize such tactics. Rather, it will put “decision-making into the commission’s hands” and increase dispersion of wolves across the state.

Supporters of SB 267 said removing wolves that prey on livestock is an expensive and time consuming task, and having a private program available to compensate hunters and trappers for their efforts would save money. Opponents argued the bill would authorize a bounty on the species and allow special interests to privatize wildlife.

Brian Mccullough, a Montana hunter, said Tuesday that SB 267 would incentivize wolf hunting for people who are skilled at it. He noted that wolves are intelligent animals and other states with liberal harvests still struggle to control populations.

It’s a good thing when the best of the best take the animals, Mccullough said.

“This will help mitigate some of the problems with impacts to domestic cows and calves for ranchers in the state,” he said.

David McEwen, president of the Montana Wool Growers Association, said wolf attacks on livestock significantly affects the sheep and wool industry.

The United States Department of Agriculture offers services to assist with the financial impacts of wolf attacks on livestock, but removing problem wolves is still very expensive, he said. A private wolf reimbursement program would be “another tool in the tool shed” for producers.

Derek Goldman, Northern Rockies field representative for the Endangered Species Coalition, said SB 267 undermines “Montana’s honorable and longstanding prohibition on wildlife bounties.”

Goldman shared Idaho Fish and Game reports that indicate an Idaho-based group advocating for the bill — the Foundation for Wildlife Management — paid $12,000 in cash rewards to its own executive director, board members and their families in the past two years.

The foundation helps the Idaho Department of Fish and Game remove wolves that prey on livestock by enlisting trappers and hunters. The group reimburses trappers and hunters for expenses they accrue.

The foundation has received money from the state of Idaho. Last September, it was awarded a $10,000 Idaho Fish and Game Commission Community Challenge Grant.

Though SB 267 doesn’t authorize the use of public funds to administer a wolf reimbursement program, Goldman said bill requests seeking state or federal money for wolf hunts could emerge in future years.

“It seems self-serving when the leaders of an organization that administers a wolf bounty program which includes state funds are also recipients of those funds,” he said. “A program like this not only tosses aside Montana’s wildlife ethos, but it is also unaccountable, self-serving and ripe for abuse by the people who administer it.”

Justin Webb, executive director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management, said at a February hearing for SB 267 that the foundation saves Idaho millions on lethal wolf removals and is not publicly funded. The foundation does receive grants from applicable sources, he said at the time.

The Foundation for Wildlife Management did not return a request for comment on Goldman’s claims before deadline.

Supporters of SB 314 said Tuesday that giving the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission more latitude to let people take more wolves, bait wolves and hunt wolves at night will help reduce populations to sustainable levels.

Tim McKenrick, a district director for the Montana Trappers Association, said that if passed, SB 314 will give commissioners more opportunities and tools to alleviate issues related to wolves killing livestock.

“This will give the opportunity for the commission to allow us to take the animals at night if necessary,” he said.

Jennifer Sherry, a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said SB 314 aims to reduce Montana’s wolf population and goes against commitments the state made when wolves were removed from the Endangered Species Act in 2008.

“Managing wildlife populations down to an absolute minimum is not representative of the kind of wildlife leadership and ethics that Montana should be showcasing to the rest of the world,” Sherry said. “We should be striving to prove that we are capable of effectively and objectively managing a recovered species.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong bill in the second paragraph. 

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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