FWP mulls more aggressive wolf hunting season

State wildlife officials have given initial approval to new, more aggressive wolf hunting rules for this year’s hunting season. The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission is accepting public comment before taking a final vote on the proposal.

The new rules extend the wolf hunting season, allows more wolves to be taken by individuals and allows trappers to use bait. The proposed rules are drawing fresh criticism from wolf advocates.

Fish Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim says hunters and trappers together did take more wolves this last hunting season than the year before—a total of 225 wolves killed. But he says FWP still thinks the species can handle a more aggressive hunt.

“We’ve still got more wolves than what we would consider in balance with the rest of the wildlife out there and with landowner tolerance. So we’re still thinking we need to reduce numbers below where they are,” Aasheim said.

The rules adopted by the FWP Commission extend the wolf hunting season by a month–out to six and a half months. Individuals would be able to take up to five wolves—up from three last hunting season, through any combination of hunting or trapping.

Some conservation organizations are criticizing the new plan as going too far. Greater Yellowstone Coalition Wildlife Program Manager Chris Colligan says the GYC has supported overall Montana wolf hunting rules in the past as being a preferred model compared with Idaho and Wyoming rules. He says his organization does not feel that way about these new guidelines. Colligan says the national public analyzes wolf management in the West with a high level of scrutiny.

“And with all of the attention last year on wolf management we feel this is going to give Montana a black eye, especially with the non-hunting public,” Colligan said.

Yellowstone National Park officials also would like FWP to change the overall wolf quota in the hunting district just outside the park. That total proposed quota is seven wolves right now, Yellowstone would like that lowered due the interest of tourists in more wolves and some recent high-profile wolf killings outside the park.

FWP says they will take that into consideration.

Other groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation praise the new proposed rules. Communications Director Mark Holyoak says the rules take into account the wishes of landowners and sportsmen.

“There is a proper place for wolves, just as there is for ungulates and other predators but we need to remember that we as humans live on the same landscape as well,” Holyoak said.

“Landowners in Montana have been great about accommodating wildlife and some of the impacts and it’s our job to do what we can to mitigate those problems,” Aasheim said.

The Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission will take a final vote on the new wolf season rules during their meeting in July.

FWP predicts there were more than 600 Wolves living in the state as of the end of last year.

See the new proposed wolf hunting rules here.

FWP Commission approves Milk River ranch purchase, closes wolf hunting season near Yellowstone

State wildlife commissioners have approved the purchase of a nearly 8 million dollar ranch along the Milk River near the Canadian border

The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission voted 4 to 1 to buy the land along with the state land board and Montana Board of Regents.

Critics including neighboring landowners said the ranch’s hunting and fishing opportunities had been overstated, and that a second appraisal was needed to ensure the state was getting a fair deal. They urged commissioners to delay their Monday vote.

FWP Spokesman Ron Aasheim says other critics voiced concerns that the money spent on the ranch would be better spent elsewhere.

But Aasheim says the commission decided this purchase would be a prudent use of funds to change ranch into a wildlife management area.

“It blocks up a number of sections in that area and it provides 10 miles of the Milk River. It’s a good piece of property. That wasn’t the argument, there were just concerns with timing and where this fit with other priorities,” Aasheim said.

Several landowners who spoke Monday threatened to cut off public hunting access on their properties if the deal went through.

Aasheim says commissioners also voted to close down wolf hunting in some areas North of Yellowstone National Park, saying the body decided enough wolves had been taken there.

“There were some concerns about collared wolves from the park, that was probably the thing that started all this and they just agreed maybe we’ll be conservative this year,” Aasheim said.

Wolf hunting continues in other parts of the state with no kill limit. The state’s first wolf trapping season begins December 15th. Both seasons last into February.

So far about 90 wolves have been taken this hunting season.

FWP considers brucellosis management options from elk working group

State wildlife officials are working on ways to reduce the spread of the disease brucellosis through different management of elk. Wild elk carry the blood-borne disease and can spread it to livestock. It can cause pregnant cows to abort their calves and can have a serious negative impact on an area’s livestock industry if infections are confirmed.

A new proposal from a citizen working group seeks to alter some elk hunting season rules and redistribute the state’s population

Department of Livestock Veterinarian Marty Zaluski spoke to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission about his agency’s work on brucellosis during its Thursday meeting.

“The goal of Montana’s brucellosis program is to certainly find but prevent disease in Livestock and make sure those cattle remain marketable and so far we’ve been highly successful,” Zaluski said.

The state Board of Livestock established a surveillance zone around the Greater Yellowstone Area to monitor brucellosis a couple of years ago, increasing cattle testing and vaccination efforts. But brucellosis in that area’s elk population appears to be on the rise in the past 10 or 15 years. So the FWP established a citizen elk working group to try tackle the issue of how to best lower the brucellosis risk for cattle.

“This process was very difficult for a lot of us,” said Working Group member and Twin Bridges livestock producer Ray Marxer, because there are so many different competing interests. Sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts care about the elk, so the group didn’t want to suggest getting rid of all the elk from a high risk area.

The working group brought the FWP commissioners a long list of recommendations. These include putting late season hunts in place, so hunters would hopefully kill infected cow elk before they abort their calves. Cattle can get infected from eating the afterbirth of these abortions. The group also suggests using management hunts to take more elk and manipulating certain landscapes or vegetation to drive elk to certain wildlife management areas or other public lands away from livestock. Providing public funding for fencing in cattle feeding areas was brought up too, among other recommendations.

One problem the elk working group has been struggling to solve is landowners harboring elk on their property, say for better hunting opportunities. Elk clustering in an area increases disease transmission.

Again, group member Ray Marxer.

“Harboring is a tough issue,” Marxer said. “It’s a tough issue for all of us, not only for the standpoint of wildlife and hunters access, but also from the standpoint of private property rights.”

FWP commissioner Ron Moody suggests a way to start addressing that problem should come from neighbors before the state.

“The state, in any of its capacities, whether it’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks or anything else, if they come in and say that to a private landowner the cowboy code kicks in and the answer is no. But perhaps a local working group speaking as the heart and voice of the local community could make that landowner feel like ‘Well, it’s ok if I say yes to these people.'”

The Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission will continue examining the working group’s recommendations in the coming months.

Rick Hill releases wildlife policy stances, calls for new leadership at FWP

Rick Hill (Center) speaks with supporters at One Way Marine in Helena Monday

Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Rick Hill has released the first of his policy positions for wildlife in the state. It calls for a new direction and new leadership at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Many of you know that I wasn’t born and raised in Montana. I tell people I got here as soon as I could,” former Congressman Hill said at One Way Marine, a Helena business selling ATVs and boating supplies, on Monday.

“But one of the reasons I came to Montana was because of the outdoors,” Hill said. “It was hunting and fishing and the opportunities for hunting and fishing and camping.”

He was holding a press conference to announce his collection of wildlife policy proposals entitled, “Protecting Montana’s Outdoor Sporting Heritage”

It all starts with displeasure at the state agency that manages wildlife.

“In every corner of the state of Montana I hear one thing, and that’s frustration and anger with Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Hill said.

Hill says FWP has lost the trust of the people of Montana and that relationships have broken down. More than anything else, Hill points to the state’s management of predators, the gray wolf especially.

FWP recently approved new rules for this year’s wolf season—which remove the statewide hunting limit on wolves and allow trapping for the first time.

Hill believes the hunting rules need to be liberalized even more, allowing individuals to hunt multiple wolves and lowering license fees.

He thinks many decisions regarding wolves have been made for political reasons and not based on sound science. He believes the number of wolves is much higher than the minimum 650 wolves estimated by FWP.

“And that the number is beyond the tipping point in some instances and that is going to dramatically impact the remaining number of wildlife that we have and so we believe that they’re not aggressive enough,” Hill said.

Hill also says he wants the agency to refocus on working for its customers—meaning hunters and fisherman. Hunting and fishing license fees and taxes on equipment provide most of the agency’s budget.

Hill’s proposal also suspends efforts to establish wild, free-roaming bison in the state. Hill says he would change the leadership at FWP, including new appointments on the FWP citizen commission—which sets the agency’s policies.

FWP Director, Joe Maurier was not available for comment today.

Hill is running against Democrat Attorney General Steve Bullock this November. Bullock campaign Spokesman Kevin O’Brien says Bullock is the only candidate who has fought in court for the rights of Montana sportsmen and personally explained to the Secretary of the Interior the importance of removing the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List.

“Seems that there are only two ways to become a wildlife biologist in Montana.” O’Brien said, “The first is you go to school and get a degree and the second is you get elected to public office. We know which direction Congressman Hill is taking. More than anything, especially with wolves, we need to get the politicians and their grandstanding out of the way and let the scientists do their jobs.”

Obrien says the Bullock campaign will focus on public access, public wildlife and professional management at FWP.

FWP initially approves 2012-2013 Wolf Hunt

FWP Commissioners Dan Vermillion and Ron Moody (foreground) listen to public comment during wolf season discussion Thursday

Montana Wildlife Officials have given initial approval to rules for the 2012-2013 Wolf Hunting season. Next year’s hunting plan drops many restrictions, seeking a higher number of wolf kills. The plan removes a quota on the animals and allows multiple wolf tags for individuals.

The plan’s inclusion of wolf trapping generated the most discussion.

 The 5-member Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission sets state hunting rules and regulations. The public packed into the meeting on next year’s wolf season so tightly commission chair Bob Ream worried about being over-capacity.

“We’ve been holding meetings out here at this wild center for months now, but we’ve never had so many people,” Ream said.

Hunters killed 166 wolves during last year’s hunting season, coming short of the state’s quota of 220. The wolf population ended up rising last year about 15 percent. FWP predicts between 600 and 650 wolves are living in the state now. The department would like to see that number closer to 425. That’s why next year’s proposed season pulls out a lot of stops, extends the season, increases the take limit, allows calls, allows trapping.

FWP Wildlife Bureau Coordinator Quentin Kujala looks at the wolf’s high reproduction rate and says this more liberalized season should not endanger the wolf population too much.

“We can apply a simpler season, an easier season for the hunter and trapper to engage without risk of overruns,” Kujala said.

A lot of the reason hunters weren’t able to kill more wolves is they found out wolves are pretty difficult to hunt. Keith Kubista spoke on behalf of the organization Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. He says more even more needs to be done. He advocates not only the use of trapping, but snaring too. Getting down to 425 wolves without that, he says, is unrealistic.

“It’s unachievable,” Kubista said, “we’ve got to get this population of wolves down and we need every tool that is attainable to use that realistically benefits the harvest of those.”

The vast public comment came from a wide variety of viewpoints, many were very unhappy with the trapping idea. Kim Beam describes herself as a wildlife and wolf advocate. She does not feel the idea of using electronic calls or trapping falls within the boundaries of ethical hunting.

“Trapping is barbaric, it’s unethical and there is no fair chase in this brutal means of killing,” she said.

Comment also strayed from the specific details of this year’s wolf plan to a general rebuke of Fish Wildlife and Parks policies from way out on one end of the spectrum to way out on the other.

“The fact that such hearings take place is a clear demonstration of the complete arrogance of a species that has succeeded at little more than violently destroying their own home planet,” said one woman, while another man said “all wolves and their offspring should be removed from Montana.”

Wildlife Biologist Kurt Alt used to work for FWP. He’s retired from the department now and spends a great deal of his time working with European wildlife biologists in Germany. He says Europe is watching Montana’s wolf debate and the biologists he works with think FWP is doing a great job managing this very difficult issue. He says sound science prepared by the department is covered up by misinformation.

“Your voice is lost with the rhetoric on either side of the extremes and I urge the commission and the department to find a way in this day and age of communication to get your voice out there because they don’t hear you,” Alt said.

Right now the FWP Commission will be waiting to hear from the public on their proposed plan. Public comment ends June 25th. The commission will take the final vote on the wolf season during their July 12th meeting.

See more details on the plan here and here.

You can leave comments for the FWP Commission at (406) 444-7826 or send an email to  fwpcomm@mt.gov

FWP Commission urging folks to consider all predators, not just wolves

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out a lawsuit by environmental groups seeking to end the state’s wolf hunt.

The Court says Congress had the right to strip endangered species act protections from the animals last Spring. Senator Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson added the wolf removal as an earmark on a federal budget bill.

Conservation Advocate Michael Robinson works with the Center for Biologic Diversity, of the groups filing the lawsuit. He says today’s ruling undermines the endangered species act and sets a harmful precedent.

“Wolves have benefited the ecosystems as scientists have found and that is a large part of the point of the endangered species act, not just to conserve the animals and plants on the verge of extinction but the ecosystems on which they depend,” he said.

Robinson says the group hasn’t yet decided if they will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dismissal concludes another chapter in the long divisive saga over managing wolves in the Rockies. Wolves pretty much take the spotlight when it comes to predators in Montana. Even as state wildlife officials plan the next wolf hunt–they are trying to promote a more holistic approach to predator management.

When the Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission holds meetings about wolves, the commission room packs with people on both sides of the issue. Hunters and ranchers complain of the wolves killing livestock and decimating elk populations. Wolf advocates argue the wolves still haven’t recovered enough to ensure genetic health.

FWP Commission Chair Bob Ream says people are missing the wider picture.

“We need to tamp down the hysteria over wolves right now….We do have a lot of different prey species in Montana and a lot of different predator species,” he said.

He says Montana has one of the most complex predator-prey networks in the country. Bears, mountain lions, wolves–he says they all affect the overall ecosystem.

For example, a lot of concern over wolves killing elk comes from the West Fork of the Bitterroot. Ream says FWP and University of Montana researchers conducted a study there last year.They put radio tags on 66 elk calves in the spring.

“And it turned out over the Summer months, during the first month, four of the calves were killed by black bears and over the remainder of the Summer seven were killed by mountain lions and only one by wolves.”

The commission will be setting new hunting rules for wolves, bears, and mountain lions in the coming months. Fish Wildlife and Parks Spokesman Ron Aasheim says when they set the seasons for each individual species–they will be taking into account the collective impacts of all predators.

“Their ranges, what we know about their depredation or their prey and their impacts on that prey,” Aasheim said.

Commissioners will be considering rules for the wolf hunting season first—in May. Bears and mountain lions will come up later in the year.