Western Gray Wolf 25 Years

This Jan. 24, 2018 National Park Service photo shows a wolf from the Wapiti Lake pack in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

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A loophole in the state’s hunting and trapping licensing system allowed Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to buy a license to trap a wolf without first completing a state-mandated course.

Officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed Tuesday that the governor had received a written warning after he’d trapped and shot a wolf outside of Yellowstone National Park on Feb. 15. The news was first reported by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between regional public radio stations.

Gianforte reported the harvest with FWP in accordance with state procedures. He had all the necessary licenses and tags. He contacted the department to have the wolf’s hide and skull inspected, as required. He didn’t, however, complete a mandatory wolf trapping certification course.

“After learning that he had not completed the wolf-trapping certification, Governor Gianforte immediately rectified the mistake and enrolled in the wolf-trapping certification course,” a Gianforte spokesperson wrote in response to the incident. “The governor had all other proper licenses.”

Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for FWP, said Wednesday that Gianforte was able to obtain a trapping license before completing the required course because of the way the department’s licensing system works.

In most cases, a user’s “ALS account” tracks that person’s purchase history and education certifications with FWP. The system automatically prevents users who don’t have proper hunting, fishing or trapping certifications from purchasing a license.

The wolf trapping certification course is an exception.

While hunters in Montana must complete a mandatory educational course before buying a hunting license, trappers do not need to complete an educational course before buying a trapping license.

The only mandatory course for trapping applies to wolves. Completing the wolf trapping course isn’t a prerequisite for buying a trapping license because the license can be used to harvest a number of species, according to Lemon.

Wolves are an outlier because of the species’ former status as a federally protected animal, Lemon said. Trapping has been practiced in Montana for centuries, but wolf trapping was stopped in the state while its wolves were listed in the Endangered Species Act.

The wolf trapping certification course was established after Montana’s wolves were delisted from the ESA, according to Lemon. It was part of the state’s process for setting up wolf management regulations.

The three-hour wolf certification course covers trapping ethics and wolf biology. It also includes information about trapping regulations and best practices in detail, Lemon said. He noted that Gov. Gianforte is not the first person to skip the course and meet all other wolf trapping requirements.

“Just from talking with wardens, this is not commonplace but we do run into it from time to time,” Lemon said. “As long as everything else is done correctly, it’s very common for us to issue a written warning.”

FWP is working toward updating its online licensing system, and the loophole on its radar, Lemon said. The department is aiming to finish the update by 2022.

If Montana lawmakers pass Senate Bill 60, sponsored by Sen. Pat Flowers, a Democrat from Bozeman, the issue might be resolved prior to the update, Lemon said.

Flowers’ bill would require Montana trappers to take an educational course before purchasing a license to trap. Trappers who have purchased three trapping licenses in the past would be exempt from the course requirement. People trapping for livestock protection would also be exempt.

SB 60 passed out of the Montana House and Senate and now awaits a signature from Gianforte.

Jim Buell, president of the Montana Trappers Association, said his organization supports establishing a mandatory trapper’s education course. Several MTA members testified in support of SB 60 earlier this month during a House Fish, Wildlife and Parks hearing.

“In my opinion, it’s better to have people who are knowledgeable prior to going out,” Buell said. “The association believes in education.”

KC York, president and founder of Trap Free Montana Public Lands, said she supports mandatory trapper education, but she can’t support Flowers’ bill because of the exemption for livestock protection. She testified in opposition to the bill at the hearing this month.

“There’s a lot of loopholes in the system, and they favor the trappers,” she said.

York said the loophole that allowed Gianforte to purchase a trapping license without taking the wolf trapping class first is problematic.

“If you go to get a drivers’ license, you don’t just pay the money to get a driver’s license,” she said. “You have to show proof.”

If Gianforte had taken the course prior to trapping a wolf, he would have learned about trapping ethics and how often to check the traps. Now the governor has the power to sign or veto more than a dozen bills easing trapping regulations, York said.

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

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