Montana State News Bureau

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The Montana Senate Fish and Game Committee advanced a pair of bills late Thursday evening that would allow private payments to wolf trappers and hunters as well as directing Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to consider more aggressive means of taking the animals.

Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, brought Senate Bill 267 and Senate Bill 314 to a marathon committee meeting that included multiple bills on wolves, grizzly bears and management of game fish.

SB 267 would allow private reimbursement for costs incurred for hunting or trapping wolves. A similar bill in the 2019 session was voted down as opponents criticized the measure as effectively putting a bounty on the animals.

In 2019, officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks testified that it would be legal to pay a hunter or trapper for “effort,” but not directly for an animal killed. For example, a rancher could pay a trapper to trap wolves on a piece of property but not pay a fee based on success.

Brown stressed Thursday that the bill was not an effort to tap public funds but would legalize private reimbursement, with receipts, for often difficult and expensive trapping and hunting of wolves.

Testifying in favor of the bill was Justin Webb, executive director of the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management. The nonprofit uses privately raised funds to pay successful wolf trappers from $500 to $1,000 based on where the animal is harvested in that state.

Webb touted the organization as assisting Idaho Fish and Game in management, saying it has paid for removal of more than 1,100 wolves.Mac Minard with the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association also voiced support for the program, saying his organization would be interested in raising funds should it come to Montana.

SB 267 does not restrict a reimbursement program only to a nonprofit.

Livestock interests and the Montana Trappers Association also voiced support for the bill.

SB 267 saw significant opposition with opponents again calling any reimbursement a bounty.

“This is clearly a bounty,” said Marc Cooke with the wolf advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies. In addition taking private funding to manage wildlife, Cooke cautioned that the bill could negatively affect Montana’s perception outside the state in terms of tourism.

Quentin Kujala with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks appeared as an informational witness. The agency believes about 1,200 wolves are in the state and hunters, trappers, federal officials and livestock owners kill about 400 annually, he said. The state does not have a target for the number of wolves as a population objective, but the state’s wolf conservation strategy identifies a minimum of 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs as one threshold where the states management options increase above and decrease below that number, he added.

Montana State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels summarizes the day's news from the Montana Legislative session.

Disputes over the number of wolves and impacts to elk and other big game populations, particularly in northwest Montana, have been central in several controversial wolf-related bills this session. FWP has increased its population estimate of wolves based on a new counting method called improved patch occupancy modeling.

Supporters of several bills aimed at increasing wolf harvest have pointed to a significant drop in elk hunter success in northwest Montana as evidence that wolves are having major impacts on populations there. While hunter success has declined, FWP elk population counts have remained at objective for many units. And due to variability in animal populations from other factors such as weather, biologists have not drawn a definitive link to wolves.

Brown’s SB 314 directs the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to set hunting and trapping seasons with the intent of reducing populations to a “sustainable” level, but not below 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs. The commission may use the most liberal regulations in regions with the greatest numbers of wolves, and could consider unlimited harvest by individual trappers or hunters, use of bait for hunting and private land hunting of wolves at night using artificial light or night vision scopes.

Brown acknowledged that Montana has some “fairly liberal” hunting and trapping seasons for wolves, but believed some areas continue to hold densities that are too high. SB 314 was written specifically to give the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission discretion, saying that steps such as baiting or night hunting were suggestions, and that the goal of the bill was not to drive populations so low as to see wolves federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“What we’re trying to do here is give the commission latitude to manage wolves differently in different parts of the state,” he said.

The bill’s only supporter was Dave McEwen with the Montana Wool Growers Association, who agreed the bill provided flexibility to wildlife managers.

Several opponents of the bill characterized it as unscientific with claims that wolves are unduly harming elk and other big game animals being largely anecdotal. Wolves play an important role in strengthening big game herds by targeting weaker animals, such as those with chronic wasting disease, they said.

“This is a wolf extermination plan taking us back 100 years,” said KC York with Trap Free Montana Public Lands.

Erin Edge with Defenders of Wildlife said the bill disregards the ecological function of wolves, calling the bill “a dangerous attempt at decimating our state’s wolf population and risking federal intervention.”

The committee voted along party lines to advance both of Brown’s bills on Thursday to the Senate floor.

Democrats raised objections to the both bills, with Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, critical of the SB 267.

“It is a bounty and it’s not a good direction for the state of Montana,” she said.

Committee Republicans did not offer any comments before voting to advance the bill.

On SB 306, Democrats again questioned the direction of the bill and felt baiting and nighttime hunting crossed ethical lines.

Brown defended the bill, saying those methods are available to the commission but not mandated, and that the agency and commission may come up with other ideas.

Bills to allow the use of snares to trap wolves as well as lengthening the wolf trapping seasons have also already advanced.

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{span}Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.{/span}

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