Governor’s push for grizzly delisting helps defeat anti-wolf bills
(Missoula Current) The Montana House defeated some bills that would have allowed more wolf trapping and bear hunting in grizzly bear habitat. But other carnivore bills are moving forward that might affect grizzly delisting.
Late Thursday, the House defeated three bills sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, that would have possibly threatened grizzly bears in western Montana. But the bills probably would have passed had not the Governor’s Office raised objections.
Two of the bills would have allowed wolf trapping and snaring in all areas except specific grizzly recovery zones and lynx protection areas and wouldn’t allow the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission to delay the season dates if grizzly bears were still outside their dens. The other bill did essentially the same thing related to using dogs to hunt black bears.
The House Fish and Wildlife committee heard all three bills on Feb. 23. Trappers, hound hunters and a Lincoln County commissioner rose to support the bill. But among the wolf and wildlife advocates that usually oppose such bills was an unusual speaker: Michael Freeman, Governor Greg Gianforte’s natural resources policy advisor.
Freeman said the governor supports predator hunting in Montana and that’s why Gianforte signed the bills Fielder sponsored in 2021 that first allowed snares and hunting bears with dogs in Montana. Prior to 2021, the FWP commission had opposed such practices as unethical. But this year, Fielder’s bills went too far, Freeman said.
“This bill limits the ability of the FWP commission to balance the provision of hunting opportunities with compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and federal law,” Freeman said. “The commission needs the ability to tailor and to customize the regulations to address issues that arise on a yearly basis. They need the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. This ties in directly with the governor’s petition to delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem subpopulation of the grizzly bear.”
On Feb. 3, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to FWP warning that bills such as Fielder’s that threaten wise grizzly bear conservation could have a negative effect on the Service’s review of the species status and that could delay delisting.
Montana FWP representatives also made a rare Legislative appearance with Deputy Director Dustin Temple saying FWP is opposed because grizzly bears are currently protected wherever they occur, not just within the recovery zones. So snaring a grizzly or harassing one with dogs would be violating federal law.
Director Hank Worsech is currently on medical leave, so Temple is acting director.
Even with the governor’s opposition, 10 Republicans on the committee voted in favor of Fielder's bills, with Republican Reps. Ross Fitzgerald, Russel Miner and Gary Parry voting with Democrats against the bills on Feb. 28.
The 10-9 committee vote sent the bills to the House floor where they were narrowly defeated on Thursday afternoon. The trapping bill was defeated by one vote while the other two went down on 47-53 votes.
Wildlife advocates celebrated the floor votes as victories, although they know the votes had little to do with the bills themselves and everything to do with the governor’s drive to delist the grizzly bear. If the Fish and Wildlife Service delists the grizzly, the bills could reappear.
Marc Cooke of Wolves of the Rockies told the House Fish and Wildlife Committee that he briefly considered supporting Fielder’s bills because, if they passed, they would give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more reason to relist wolves and less reason to delist grizzly bears.
Wolves of the Rockies tried to reverse some of the changes the Legislature made in 2021 with two of their own bills. Working with the Montana American Indian Caucus, Wolves of the Rockies backed a bill to eliminate the expense reimbursement given to wolf hunters and trappers who kill wolves and another bill to return authority to the FWP commission to stop wolf hunting and trapping if needed in districts next to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
The House Fish and Wildlife committee heard both bills on Feb. 28. Neither Freeman nor FWP testified in favor of commission authority this time, and both bills were defeated in executive action the same day.
Meanwhile, two bills affecting grizzly bear management are still moving forward.
Once the grizzly is delisted, Senate Bill 295, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, would allow livestock producers to kill grizzly bears threatening or killing livestock or allow people or FWP to kill or remove a bear that is a “consistent presence” once FWP decides the action.
During testimony on Feb. 14, Nick Gevock of the Endangered Species Coalition said SB 295 focused only on lethal control and should include nonlethal aspects. The bill was later amended to say “nonlethal and preventative measures” would be used to manage the bear in addition to trapping and lethal measures.
SB 295 also doesn’t limit the killing to private land, leaving bears on public land vulnerable. Gevock quoted a U.S. Fish and Wildlife comment on the draft Montana grizzly management plan, that said Montana was doing nothing to protect non-conflict bears existing outside the grizzly recovery zones and even suggested possible no-bear zones.
“This bill is another sign that Montana would manage grizzlies like it’s managing wolves: for bare minimum numbers with an emphasis on lethal control,” Gevock said.
Once amended, SB 295 passed both the committee and the Senate on a mostly party-line vote on Feb. 28 and is headed to the House. The only Democrat to vote for the bill was Sen. Pat Flowers.
SB 85, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, also relates to FWP’s management after delisting, saying the department would manage grizzlies “at levels to maintain their delisted status.” It also originally focused only on lethal control but was later amended to mention non-lethal and preventative measures.
SB 85 passed the Senate at the end of January and is waiting to be heard in the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee. The Legislature is now on a transmittal break until March 9.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.