The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission has approved the use of more methods to kill wolves in the upcoming season, which could set the stage for relisting.

On Friday, the FWP commission voted 3-2 to allow several methods of wolf hunting and trapping in an effort to reduce the population to the minimum allowed before relisting is required.

In June, the department gave the commission a list of all the possible combinations to be considered based upon bills passed in the 2021 Legislature. In particular, one bill approved the use of wolf snares while another mandated reducing the population to 150 wolves or 15 breeding pairs, the minimum required for delisting.

On Friday, Commissioner Pat Tabor laid out his proposal of all the tools that he wanted the department to allow. Department biologists didn’t recommend the combination he chose.

Topping Tabor’s list was a requirement for commission review once a total of 450 wolves were killed during the season, “with the potential for rapid adjustment to hunting and trapping regulations.” After that, the commission will hold further reviews after another 50 wolves are killed. The department suggested the option of closing the hunt once 450 wolves were killed.

Tabor said he built in a safeguard that the commission would also hold reviews once kill limits are met in each region. For example, after 195 wolves are killed in Region 1, 116 wolves in Region 2 and 82 wolves in Region 3. The capture of any lynx or grizzly bear would initiate a review.

Commissioner K.C. Walsh asked how quickly the commission would have to respond, implying it’s difficult to get everyone together on short notice. Hunters and trappers would then have to be given 24 hours notice so the limits could be exceeded before all was said and done.

Notably, Tabor also removed the low kill quotas for hunting districts adjacent to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The new season will extend from the end of the rifle season at the end of November to March 15.

Snares would have a loop stop to keep it from closing to a small diameter and have a break-away device rated to 1,000 pounds. No power-assisted or spring locks are allowed on public land.

Hunters can buy 10 wolf licenses and trappers can bag 10 wolves. Night hunting is permitted on private land and the use of bait in hunting is allowed.

Commissioner Pat Byorth noticed he didn’t have Tabor’s list that the other commissioners were reading from. When asking if he and members of the public could have a copy, he asked if Tabor had negotiated with other commissioners to come up with the list.

By law, commissioners aren’t supposed to meet in a quorum – more than two – outside public meetings. Tabor said he never met with more than one commissioner at a time.

Byorth asked Tabor to consider an amendment to remove night hunting and baiting from the regulations, because they don’t follow the ethics of fair chase, which requires that hunters don’t use tools that give them an unfair advantage over game.

“My largest concern is we’re selling our souls and fair chase in order to provide methods that are unnecessary and more likely to have unanticipated outcomes,” Byorth said. “(Night hunting and baiting) gives permission to behavior that our game wardens fight on a daily basis. Now we’re giving permission in a desire to kill more wolves.”

Tabor refused to accept Byorth’s amendment, saying he didn’t like his ethics challenged.

However, during the next hour of public comment, Tabor’s ethics were challenged several times as 30 people commented to oppose Tabor’s proposal. That’s in addition to the 25,000 comments FWP received during the public comment period in July, two-thirds of which opposed liberalizing wolf regulations. Six people spoke in support, two of which said they were aligned with the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management, whose goal is to “promote ungulate population recovery in areas negatively impacted by wolves.”

Claiming the commission was ignoring the public, many asked the commission to use the more measured recommendations put forward by FWP.

“Adopt the FWP staff recommendations as opposed to the current motion. Montana is blessed to have competent scientists and managers within FWP. I urge you to follow their science-driven advice and guidance,” said Polebridge ecologist Kenna Halsey. “Before creating excessively lethal standards, please start with a measured approach. Monitor and collect data, and understand the incremental effects of our decisions.”

Several opponents pointed out that the claim that more wolves needed to be killed in Region 1 to save elk herds wasn’t backed by science. The last Region 1 elk survey occurred in 2009, and even then, biologists struggled to get accurate counts. In the meantime, the human population in the region has surged while habitat has suffered from wildfires, higher summer temperatures and less snowpack in northwestern Montana. In the rest of the state, elk are over population objectives in a majority of districts.

Tabor said he requested data from FWP showing the correlation between wolf and ungulate populations. However, later when Byorth asked FWP game management bureau chief Brian Wakeling about the data, Wakeling said it was a mistake to make assumptions based on just wolf and elk data, because there are so many predators and game species involved and because wolves in Region 1 eat mainly white-tailed deer.

“When we start to look at relationship between predators and prey within an ecosystem, it becomes incredibly complex pretty quickly,” Wakeling said. “Even in parts of the state where we see a larger proportion of the (wolf) diet be elk, often that’s not the leading cause of depredation.”

FWP administrator Ken McDonald said hunters and trappers reported killing 328 wolves in 2020, up from 300 in 2019. McDonald said that probably didn’t reduce the population below what it was estimated to be in 2019. Based upon the 2019 Annual Wolf Report, the Patch Occupancy Model estimated a Montana population of 825 wolves, down from the peak of 1,100 wolves in 2013. The last wolf survey in 2017 counted about 625 wolves.

If the hunt kills 450 wolves or more, that would cut the population in half and biologists won’t know if they still have 15 breeding pairs.

Several opponents said they’d lobby the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relist the wolf if the commission voted in favor of Tabor’s motion.

FWP attorney Becky Dockter told the commissioners they had to walk a fine line between following Legislative mandates and not exceeding federal limits. She added that she’d read an article saying the Biden administration had filed court documents supporting the Trump administration’s delisting of the wolf.

However, Dockter failed to not that the Associated Press article went on to say that “wolf management policies in place at the state level have shifted dramatically since protections were lifted, and (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director Gary) Frazier suggested the federal government could take steps to restore protections if it sees population declines that put them on the path to extinction.”

Byorth warned that going overboard to allow the killing of more wolves might mean Montana won’t be allowed to kill any wolves because the courts will step in.

Walsh said he’d come to the commission meeting prepared to approve a number of the proposals but not night-hunting or baiting. Walsh and Byorth both opposed Tabor’s motion.

Also, by a vote of 4-1, the commission approved increasing the number of otters that can be trapped each season to 80 from 53 in western Montana.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.