Bills Propose Big Changes To Wolf, Grizzly Management In Montana
A slate of bills making their way through Montana’s legislative session indicate a potential sea change in how the Treasure State will manage big carnivores and who gets a say in making those decisions.
Nicky Ouellet: Rachel, we’re halfway through Montana’s legislative session. Can you bring us up to speed on several bills that made it through the transmittal deadline that take aim at reducing the wolf population in Montana?
Rachel Cramer: Earlier this month, Montana’s Senate passed Senate Bill 314 from Sen. Bob Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls, which would allow hunters and trappers to kill unlimited numbers of wolves on a single license. For context, the bag limit right now is five wolves per season whether someone has a trapping license, hunting license or both.
Brown’s bill would also legalize hunting wolves at night with spotlights on private land, which critics say violates the idea of ethical fair-chase hunting. He has another bill, Senate Bill 267, which would allow private money to reimburse wolf hunters and trappers for related costs. A lot of wildlife and conservation organizations are calling this a bounty, which is not allowed under the state constitution.
Nicky Ouellet: A similar bill allowing for the state to reimburse trappers failed in the last session.
Rachel Cramer: Yeah, and according to the Montana State News Bureau, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks testified that it would be legal to pay a hunter or trapper for “effort,” but not directly for an animal killed.
There are two other bills, both sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Fielder of Thompson Falls, that also aim to reduce the wolf population. House Bill 224 would allow neck snares for wolves on private and public land. Here’s Fielder during a hearing last month.
“The intent of HB 224 is to allow snaring of wolves as a wildlife management tool to protect deer, elk, moose and livestock in Montana,” Fielder said.
He has another bill, House Bill 225, that would add two weeks to each end of the wolf trapping season, something the Fish and Wildlife Commission already has the authority to do if it so chooses.
Nicky Ouellet: So pretty big changes to wolf management. What are supporters saying?
Rachel Cramer: Some of the groups that spoke in support of these bills are the Montana Trappers Association, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and the Montana Wool Growers Association. They said there need to be more tools to manage wolves and that wolves are to blame for reduced elk and deer populations in northwest Montana.
I did look at some FWP data going back to 2014 for northwest Montana and it shows the elk population has been in the objective range for that entire time.
Nicky Ouellet: Who are some of the opponents and what were their arguments?
Rachel Cramer: Montana Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Wolves of the Rockies, Footloose Montana, Natural Resource Defense Council and Montana Audubon said there’s no hard data showing wolves cause elk numbers to go on a downward trend and that there are a lot of factors, like harsh winters, Chronic Wasting Disease, urban development, hunting access issues, that affect hunter success rates.
They argued the wolf population in the state has stabilized after a peak in 2012 and that the Fish and Wildlife Commission already has the ability and the expertise to adjust management practices based on science and public input.
Something that stood out to me during the hearing about wolf snares is that some trappers and mountain lion hunters also opposed the bill.
Nicky Ouellet: Why’s that?
Rachel Cramer: A few trappers said wolves are such a contentious issue that allowing neck snares could put all trapping in the hot seat of public pressure. And the mountain lion hunters were worried about their hounds getting caught in neck snares.
Rod Bullis during the hearing said a good hound dog can cost $2,000.
“There are absolutely no consequences to the snareman, the trapper that kills a big game animal, like a mountain lion, a pet, a hunting dog, a lynx or a wolverine. No fines, no loss of privileges, no restitution to Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Bullis said.
A lot of opponents to the wolf snaring bill shared concerns about dogs, livestock and wildlife getting caught in a snare.
Nicky Ouellet: In addition to wolves, lawmakers are also trying to reshape how black bears and grizzlies are managed with an eye toward agricultural producers and hound hunters.
Rachel Cramer: Yes. House Bill 468, also from Republican Rep. Paul Fielder of Thompson Falls, would allow hound hunting of black bears in the spring. Opponents, like the Montana Wildlife Federation, say hounds would likely chase or run into federally listed grizzly bears, which the organization says will result in more dead grizzlies as hound hunters are defending their dogs in conflicts.
Another bill, Senate Bill 98 from Sen. Butch Gillespie, a Republican from Ethridge, would allow anyone to kill a grizzly they thought was threatening livestock.
Nicky Ouellet: As a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies of course can only be killed in self defense or defense of other people, and there is a state law that says people can kill a grizzly if it’s in the act of killing livestock. So the difference here, Rachel, is this “threatening” livestock?
Rachel Cramer: Right, and that’s what critics are worried about because there isn’t a clear definition for that so they’re worried people could justify killing a grizzly bear just for being there.
There’s also Senate Bill 337 from Republican Sen. Mike Lane of Malta, which would revise laws related to grizzly relocation. Wildlife officials would only be able to relocate a grizzly to an area that was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission through its public input process
Quentin Kujala, chief of staff for Montana FWP, said the agency supports the bill.
“The requirement for commission approval would make more transparent and inclusive the identification of those sites. This has become more and more important as grizzly bear numbers and their distribution have increased and expanded as well as the number of people using public lands,” Kujala said.
The bill would also restrict FWP from relocating any grizzly bear captured outside a recovery zone if it was involved in a conflict, and by “conflict” that could be anything from a bear getting into a dumpster or chicken coop.
Here’s Jay Bodner, representing the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
“I think the biggest issue with our folks are, we don’t want to be moving these problem bears from one place to another and having them be habitual offenders so that’s a concern I think this bill does address so with that, we do stand in support,” Bodner says.
The Montana Wool Growers Association and Montana Farm Bureau Federation also spoke in support.
Critics say the language in the bill implies more grizzly bears would be killed rather than relocated if they’re outside a recovery zone and that higher grizzly mortalities would prevent the state from getting grizzlies off the Endangered Species list.
Representatives from the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Audubon, Natural Resource Defense Council, Footloose Montana, Sierra Club and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition spoke in opposition to SB 337.
Nicky Ouellet: Rachel, what’s the big picture here? What are people saying about these bills in the context of past legislative sessions and wildlife management in Montana more broadly?
Rachel Cramer: I spoke with Chris Servheen, who’s the vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and the former grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“For decades, Montana has been a leader in the West in terms of scientific wildlife management, but what we’re seeing is the legislature reaching into the management systems of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and coming up with anti predator bills,” Servheen said.
Servheen also talked about Senate Bill 306 from Sen. Mike Lane, a Republican from Malta, which would require four out of seven Fish and Wildlife Commission members to be landowners in agricultural production. Right now there are five commissioners, and one person is supposed to be a large landowner.
Servheen says most of the hunters in Montana are not big landowners and much of the land where that hunting is done is federal land.
“And yet those landowners that are going to be appointed are going to be skewing the decisions made by the Fish and Wildlife Commission to issues that interest them and benefit them. And that kind of bias, and that kind of moving away from representing all hunters and fisherman in Montana is really troubling,” Servheen says.
Trapper and outfitter associations, along with a few ag groups, say there need to be more tools to better manage wolves and grizzlies as they move back onto the landscape. But some ranchers are worried anti predator laws could create a backlash or a boycott against Montana beef, and a lot of wildlife and conservation organizations argue the legislature is ignoring science and forgoing fair chase hunting principles to benefit the interests of a few rather than the greater public.
Nicky Ouellet: Some potential big shifts in policy in managing these large, charismatic megafauna. Rachel, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.
Rachel Cramer: Thanks, Nicky.