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.

Gun bills begin their path through the Senate after clearing House

Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson speaks against a bill to prohibit the enforcement of new federal gun laws during a hearing Wednesday

Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson speaks against a bill to prohibit the enforcement of new federal gun laws during a hearing Wednesday

A collection of controversial gun bills are making their way through the state Senate after passing the House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard two bills from Representative Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) on Wednesday. One (HB 302) would prevent the legislature from enforcing any new federal bans on semi-automatic firearms or high-capacity magazines. Kerns calls it a response to federal intrusion, even though the federal government has yet to make any decisions in new gun control talks. “There’s nothing wrong with us pre-empting them and saying we’re not going to go along with what it is they’re attempting to do,” he said.

The Montana Sheriff’s and Peace Officers Association opposes the bill. Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson says he does not agree with the new gun regulations being proposed at the federal level, but he does not want to put state statutes at odds with federal laws.

He uses an example of arresting someone in partnership with a federal officer, saying “If we seized someone during that enforcement action that had a high-capacity magazine and a semi-automatic weapon, we could be arrested or we could be charged with a criminal act. That’s not appropriate.”

Some critics of the bill also say it would not pass federal constitutional muster.

The other bill Represenative Kerns brought before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday (HB 205) removes the state’s prohibition on gun silencers. Kerns says Hollywood has not accurately portrayed silencers, which her refers to as ‘suppressors.’ The gunshot is not silent, the initial sound of the bullet leaving the muzzle is lowered about 20 percent, or 30 decibals.

“All we’re suppressing is the sound of the muzzle blast in the immediate area. The projectile traveling beyond the speed of sound, the sonic boom remains—the downrange noise remains the same,” Kerns said. Supporters say lowering the muzzle blast is enough to help with hearing loss for big game hunters. Plus they say a months-long federal background check is required before silencers can be used in any respect.

Montana hunters can already use silencers when hunting coyote, fox, prairie dogs and gopher. This legislation seeks to lift all prohibition, allowing the suppressors for big game hunting.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks spoke against the bill. FWP Law Enforcement Chief Jim Kropp says landowners and other recreationists rely on being able to effectively hear where gun shots are coming from during hunting season.

“Over a distance from where that weapon is fired 30 decibels does make a big difference in being able to hear the report of that weapon,” Kropp said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet voted on either of these bills.

Montana begins first wolf trapping season this weekend

Courtesy Montana FWP

Courtesy Montana FWP

Montana opens its first ever wolf trapping season this weekend. Wildlife officials are hoping adding trapping will increase wolf harvest numbers after hunters continue to put up underwhelming success rates.

The decision is still creating controversy.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commissioners approved wolf trapping earlier this year, along with putting in place an extended wolf hunting season and removing the statewide kill limit for wolves.

“The department certainly has the objective to reduce the number of wolves in Montanal,” said FWP Wildlife Section Supervisor George Pauley, who oversees a number of state hunting and trapping programs.

Last year hunters fell well short of FWPs objective wolf harvest of 220. So far this hunting season the numbers are lagging behind last year. Pauley says if the department is looking to kill 380 wolves this time around, they probably won’t be able to do it with hunters alone.

Pauley says trappers could help bring the total population down from the current minimum of 650 to about 485 wolves “which, short term would be our objective for this year and then we’d lo ok to reduce the population beyond that in coming years.”

The approval of trapping has unleashed a torrent of criticism from wolf advocates around the world. An online petition trying to stop the wolf trapping season calls the practice cruel, barbaric and uncalled for. The petition has almost 3 thousand signatures. The bottom of the petition lists FWP Commission Chairman Bob Ream’s address and phone number.

Ream says Idaho was able to increase harvest numbers by 50 percent by putting a trapping season in place and Montana is looking for a way to reach those kind of numbers.

“We’re in the early stages of wolf management and we’re still learning,” Ream said, “and this is part of the learning process. Is it a risk, I don’t think it’s a huge risk. We’ll find out what happens and learn from any mistakes.”

FWP’s George Pauley says applicants had to attend a 6 hour course in order to become certified to trap wolves.

“The emphasis of those classes was to teach primarily ethics and humane and proper methods for trapping and we’re confident we got those messages across,” Pauley said.

Montana’s courses garnered a lot more interest than Idaho’s first trapping year.

“Idaho had about 950 participants in their trapper education courses,” Pauley said, “and we had a little over 2400 people attend our classes.”

Although only about a quarter of those taking the course in Idaho ended up actually trapping wolves.

Montana expects about the same rate.

The wolf trapping season begins this Saturday, December 15th and runs through the end of the wolf hunting season at the end of February.

All told, an individual is able to kill three wolves, but only one can be through hunting, the others must be trapped.

General rifle hunting season starts this weekend

Capital Sports and Western Wear stocked for the season

This weekend marks the opening of the general deer and elk rifle hunting season.

Montana City resident Jim Manning came into Helena’s Capitol Sports and Western Wear on a mission on Wednesday.

“Oh, to buy good stuff,” he said, “you can’t ever have enough guns and bullets and clothes. It’s that time of year, right?”

It is that time of year, the general hunting season. Capital Sports Co-owner Jay Sherley is walking among the racks of orange jackets, camouflage and paper targets. He says business is up.

“Oh yeah, it’s been gearing up for the last two weeks. People are excited, gearing up to get out,” he says.

And with the way things are now, it’s picking up a little sooner.

“Cause usually they wait until Thursday and Friday but now that the kids are getting out there,” Sherley said.

Yep, the state’s youth hunt. This is the second year Montana is trying out this youth hunt, giving kids a couple days head start. The deer season starts for youth ages 12 to 15 on Thursday and Friday, it opens to everyone else on Saturday, along with the elk season.

Clerks are printing a seemingly endless spool of hunting licenses over at the Fish Wildlife and Parks headquarters. For new hunters like 12 year old Luke Phillips.

“I’m gonna get my first deer, hopefully,” Phillips said.

FWP spokesman Tom Palmer says those two ‘youth only’ days line up with days kids get off for state teacher conferences.

“So a couple of years ago, someone came up with the idea of why not open a hunting season for youth on those two days,” he said.

Palmer says it’s been a successful program. Then, by the true opening day on Saturday, “we’ll probably have 100,000 hunters out on the plains, in the mountains searching for deer and elk.”

Last year 150 thousand deer hunters harvested 81 thousand Montana deer. Just over 100 thousand elk hunters took down 21 thousand elk.

Back over at Capital Sports, customer Jim Manning has set realistic goals.

“I’m gonna take my gun for a walk in the woods,” he said.

He says he’s mostly just looking to get outside. Anything else is an added bonus.

The General rifle season lasts through November 25th

Wolf hunting also continues this year in Montana. That season started October 15th and runs through February 28th. So far about nine thousand wolf licenses have been sold. Nine wolves have already been killed. The state is looking to lower wolf populations, setting no quota on the animals and also allowing trapping for the first time.

The state’s wolf trapping season starts December 15th.


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 to appeal bison transfer injunction to MT Supreme Court

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has notified the state Supreme Court it will appeal a recent injunction blocking the transfer of 30 Yellowstone bison to a Montana Indian Reservation. FWP signed a memorandum of understanding with both the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations regarding the transfer late last year.

The injunction comes largely from landowners bordering Ft. Belknap who do not think the tribe will manage the bison responsibly.

Kerry White serves on the board of the group Citizens for Balanced Use, one of the plaintiffs in this injunction. He wonders why FWP is appealing a 30-day injunction to the state’s highest court without letting District Court try the case first.

“This is just a simple injunction to hold them off for 30 days from putting free-roaming bison into northeastern Montana,” White said.

“There’s just more delay at the District Court,” Governor Schweitzer said, “and the consideration of law probably ought to just go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

These 60 genetically-pure bison originally wandered out of Yellowstone National Park. They have been found free of the disease brucellosis and so the state has kept them in quarantine for about 5 years—trying to figure out what to do with them. Officials penciled out the agreement to split the bison between Fort Peck and Fort Belknap last year.

Kerry White and the other plaintiffs sought the injunction because they worry about Fort Belknap. The reservation already has a commercial bison herd. White says photos from neighboring landowners show how those bison escape from poor fencing on Fort Belknap.

“Several times the tribe has been presented with damage bills, receipts from haystacks damaged, cropland damaged and the tribe has refused to respond to these requests from the landowners to be reimbursed,” White said. Landowners say sometimes these bills have run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Fort Belknap officials did not return calls seeking comment.

But Governor Schweitzer says those problems are beside the point. Those are property battles between two private entities. The Yellowstone bison are in a separate category—a state matter. He asks the plaintiffs to look at the Memorandum of Understanding the state has signed with the tribe.

“It specifically lays out the kind of fencing that would need to be built and it lays out the fact that these bison will not be allowed to get out,” Schweitzer said.

The Yellowstone bison need to be kept separate from the tribe’s commercial herd. They need to be enclosed within electric fencing, not the barbed wire the tribe normally uses. Schweitzer says bison will not be moved to Ft. Belknap unless the reservation demonstrates they are following the agreement.

“The value of these genetics are worth way too much to allow these bison to be crossed with cattle or to be crossed with other bison that have cattle genetics in them,” Schweitzer said.

The 60 bison have already been moved to the Fort Peck Reservation, which already has the appropriate fencing and infrastructure to keep them. The plan has been to transfer the bison to Fort Belknap once that reservation installs their fences, ideally by this summer. But that move depends on the either the Supreme Court considering the injunction or sending it back to District Court for a ruling there.

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 hears from county commissioners unhappy about wolf hunt

FWP Commissioners considering new wolf hunting restrictions Wednesday

County Commissioners from around Montana tell wildlife management officials more needs to be done to bring down the state’s rising wolf population.

They say wolves continue depleting elk populations and hurting livestock in their regions.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners are looking to widen the scope of the state’s wolf hunt.

“We are going to be much more aggressive in our proposals this next season,” said FWP Director Joe Maurier during a packed FWP Commission meeting on Wednesday.

County Commissioners were filling the chairs of the commission room. There were others present via satellite links to other cities and towns. And every one who got up to speak wants more wolves killed.

“One thing we’re happy about is we got the first wolf in the wolf hunt and there was celebration in downtown Columbus on that one,” said Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey. She was not happy about much else. “We’re disappointed the maximum quota was not met. We really counted on that and we hope that that will happen next year.”

Hunters killed 166 wolves this year out of the quota of 220, even with an extended season. Fish Wildlife and Parks had hoped to cut the wolf population 25 percent this year. Instead, latest figures show the population actually rose 15 percent. Some counties like Ravalli County are talking about offering bounties for wolf kills. That is legal as long as the animals are killed legally.

Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman joined several commissioners in calling FWP’s wolf numbers into question.

“I think a lot of people think there’s a lot more wolves out there that haven’t been counted,” he said.

Fish Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Ron Moody agrees maybe that is something the department should look into.

“We need to do our best to accurately count wolves. You can’t manage what you can’t measure and this is a chronic problem with the predator species because predators are by their job title elusive and scarce animals to run down and count,” Moody said.

FWP officials are mulling over ways to increase wolf kills next season. Wildlife Chief Ken McDonald mentions a general season that lasts through February with no quotas.

“In terms of other tools, trapping comes up we’re looking at trapping,” McDonald said.

Also allowing hunters to take more than one wolf or use electronic calls. A lot of those changes would need to be approved by the 2013 Legislature. The FWP Commission will consider formal proposals on these ideas in May.

Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission denies extending wolf hunt in Bitterroot Valley

Courtesy: Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commissioners have unanimously voted not to extend the wolf hunting season in the Bitterroot Valley.

An already extended statewide wolf hunt came to a close this week. 166 wolves were killed—75 percent of the 220 wolf quota.

Those in favor of the longer Bitterroot hunt say they need more time to bring their region closer to the quota. But commissioners have instead opted to regroup for next year’s hunt.

Montana Outfitters and Guides Association Executive Director Mac Minard says some Bitterroot hunters and ranchers remain clear with Fish Wildlife and Parks on their opinion of the wolf hunt.

“There were quite a few people that want this thing extended,” Minard said about public comment at Thursday’s meeting.

The FWP Commission was considering extending the hunt in the Bitterroot Valley’s District 250. Hunters believe wolves are having too big of an impact on the elk population there. FWP is in the process of studying the reasons for the elk decline.

Biologists predict about 36 wolves live in that area. The district’s quota this year was for half of that population—18 wolves. Hunters only killed 8 in district 250.

“Given how the hunt has gone in 250, I’m not sure it would make much of a difference in the next month whether we take some extra wolves or not,” said FWP Director Joe Maurier.

Allowing an extended season for the Bitterroot wolf hunt would have been inconsistent with how FWP normally sets seasons. They say a better approach will be to focus on next season; focus on how to get wolf harvest closer to the quota. Mac Minard with Montana Outfitters and Guides agrees with that approach because, as he says, wolves are hard to kill.

“It isn’t a species that’s gonna behave like anything else we’ve hunted here before,” he said. “These animals become adapted very quickly to hunting pressure.”

FWP Commissioner Colton says the Department needs to look at allowing other methods for taking wolves.

“This year it was very simple, you can shoot it with a bow, you can shoot it with a rifle. You know, you had to wear your orange. So there were some impediments arguably for the wolf hunters,” he said.

He says the state may look into allowing electronic wolf calls next season, perhaps some kind of baiting. Maybe hunters would be allowed to buy more than one license. There was talk of lowering the price of wolf licenses for non-residents too. These options could help bring wolf numbers down to where FWP wants them.

Commissioner Colton also says hunters are still learning about the animals.

“I can tell you those guys that were really committed to going out and getting a wolf–they got a wolf. It’s not easy,” he said.

Most of the new wolf hunting options being considered by the commission require legislative approval. FWP Director Maurier says he wants to bring a new wolf management plan to the 2013 state legislature in its first week.