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Anti-wildlife bills and agency changes could damage Montana’s wildlife populations

The anti-wildlife nature of several Legislative bills has prompted more than four-dozen former wildlife professionals of Montana to raise their voice in opposition. If passed, the bills, along with agency changes, would diminish Montana’s reputation for science-based wildlife management.

On Tuesday, 16 retired employees of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and three former FWP commissioners joined other biologists from tribal nations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a letter asking the Montana Legislature and Gov. Greg Gianforte to kill seven bill that seek to increase opportunities to kill, in potentially gruesome ways, wolves and grizzly bears in Montana.

“We find these bills to be based on misinformation about wildlife, misinformation about the effects of predators on prey species, and a lack of understanding about the complexity of natural environments in Montana. Detailed wildlife policy should be science-based and set by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission with the input of the public, not by the legislature,” the letter said.

Almost all the bills have appeared in previous sessions but they’ve always died in the Legislature or through a governor’s veto. But this year, with a Republican governor who has said he would change the way things are done in Montana, Republicans are approving every bill that would micromanage state agency decisions, leaving the public with little say in how Montana’s wildlife, land and water should be managed.

Four bills sponsored by two Thompson Falls Republicans would vastly increase all the ways hunters and trappers can kill wolves and allow organizations to reimburse hunters and trappers for doing so.

Most Montana hunters support fair-chase hunting, which prohibits the use of certain technology in order to give game a fair chance. But Sen. Bob Brown’s Senate Bill 314 adds more options for killing wolves that are not fair chase, including baiting wolves, hunting wolves with spotlights at night, and allows license holders to kill an unlimited number of wolves.

In addition, Brown’s SB 267 would basically legalize bounties on wolves, allowing organizations such as those that sponsor killing contests to put up money to attract wolf hunters and trappers.

The biologists said such a bill would harm Montana’s hunting legacy, among other things.

“Farmers and ranchers don’t want to get up in the night to find out who is spotlighting and shooting on their property. Unlimited killing of wolves is contrary to sound wildlife management policy and is unnecessary since 35% of the Montana wolf population is killed each year already by wolf hunters and trappers,” the letter said.

Trappers are allowed to use snares – cables that tighten around an animal’s neck to choke them – for small fur species. But House Bill 224, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder would make larger wolf snares legal, creating the potential to strangle not only wolves but also other non-target wildlife and pets.

Fielder’s HB 225 would extend the wolf-trapping season until March 15, which would create the potential to trap grizzly and black bears. Yellowstone National Park reported the first spring grizzly bear sighting on March 7.

HB 224 and HB 225 passed the House on party-line votes and passed out of the Senate Fish and Game committee the same way last week.

Fielder, a past legislature and opponent of public lands, always justifies the need for more dead wolves by saying there aren’t enough elk in Northwest Montana because the wolves are killing them. But that wouldn’t explain why there are so many elk in other areas where wolves reside. Ten years ago, hunters in the Bitterroot Valley claimed that wolves were killing too many elk, but then a 2013 research project revealed other predators along with human development were more responsible than wolves.

The Bitterroot incident demonstrates the value of scientific research as opposed to unfounded assumptions. At FWP commission meetings, hunters swore that wolves were the problem based upon their opinion of what they saw. But unbiased sampling conducted by trained biologists showed what was really going on.

Put the four bills together and the 35% of the population killed now could jump to more than half in just a few years. Wolf hunting and trapping could easily diminish the wolf population to the point where it was again threatened. With such methods in law, FWP and the FWP commission would have little to no authority to reduce the kill rate, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might need to step in to keep wolves from being extirpated.

This is an extreme reversal of what has occurred over the past 15 years. When Rocky Mountain wolves were delisted in 2011, Montana was the first state to publish a science-based wolf management plan that was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, followed by Idaho. Wolves weren’t delisted in Wyoming until 2017 because the state did not use science-based management, allowing people to shoot wolves on sight.

FWP commission meetings were contentious during the first years of season setting. But by the end of 2018, when Chairman Dan Vermillion termed out, he noted that a calm had settled because less than a handful of people bothered to comment on wolf seasons.

These bills are ruffling that calm, as dozens of wildlife advocates and hunting groups such as the Montana Wildlife Federation have repeatedly appeared in opposition.

Agricultural producers face potential challenges with predators near livestock. However, some producers are having successes by using nonlethal techniques to discourage predators and they can be reimbursed for livestock lost to predators, as long as the cause of death can be proven. Co-existence is  not easy, but some have seen small improvements with nonlethal equipment.

Fielder is also sponsoring HB 468, which would allow people to chase down black bears with hounds. Hunters already use hounds to hunt mountain lions, but bears are different, which is why Montana banned hound hunting for bears a century ago.

Biologists say chasing black bears with hounds can result in cub abandonment, chronic stress, heat exhaustion in warm weather, and abandonment of home ranges. In other words, the chase itself may not kill bears, but more bears will die or disappear over the long term. It also sets up potential for conflict with grizzly bears, which would turn and fight hounds rather than run.

Another bear bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, would require the FWP commission to pre-approve all sites where grizzlies can be relocated to, and it would prohibit FWP from relocating grizzly bears trapped outside the main recovery areas. Under this bill, biologists would have had to kill the bear that was hanging around the Stevensville golf course, rather than relocating it to the Bob Marshall Wilderness a few years ago.

The biologists, led by former USFWS grizzly bear coordinator Chris Servheen, said this bill would eliminate any possibility of delisting grizzly bears in Montana.

“This bill is contrary to 40 years of policy and cooperative grizzly management in Montana, it is contrary to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Guidelines, which Montana FWP has been a party to, and it will result in the unnecessary death of many grizzly bears. We are especially appalled that this bill is being promoted by the leadership of MT FWP,” the letter said.

The FWP leadership has already indicated it has little regard for sportsmen’s input, so many sportsmen and wildlife lovers are concerned that FWP will turn its back on a legacy of mostly science-based wildlife management and emulate the commercialized agencies of states like Texas or Wyoming.

Several sources close to the agency told the Missoula Current that FWP leadership has told employees they aren’t to talk to legislators or the public.
“I’m hearing employees in FWP who are scientists are being told to be quiet and aren’t being consulted about any of these terrible bills,” said one source. “Additionally, folks in (the Department of Public Health and Human Services) feel the same. State employees are very unhappy with (Greg Gianforte), he plants his people among them, they feel worried about their job security, are not consulted on bills. Morale is terrible.”

Another said the work atmosphere is worse than during the time Joe Maurier was FWP director during Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s second term. Maurier also wouldn’t let employees talk to the public.

“Maurier threatened to fire everybody. What we got now is apparently worse. I know a number of people who have just left the agency because they’ve had it,” said another source. “Gianforte said he’s going to make major changes in Fish, Wildlife & Parks and he’s doing it.”

The Missoula Current agreed not to reveal names because it could reveal which employees are talking.

Some wildlife advocates have complained they can’t find wildlife counts or management plans on the new FWP website that replaced the old one in December. They worry that no science information will be posted in the future.

FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said it’s just taking a long time to transfer all the data over to the new site.

When asked whether FWP would continue to use science in its decision-making or whether economic factors would be given more emphasis, Lemon said the agency would continue to follow its 2016 Vision, which says “We use the best biological and social sciences to inform and make management decisions.”

“Science is what we do as a department and is foundational to the decisions we make,” Lemon said in an email. “Economics and many other factors do play into decisions, at times. I don’t see that changing either and I think this reflected in our Core Values.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.