Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After two years of wolf population declines, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has lowered kill quotas for Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping season. But allowing early wolf trapping in more areas may threaten some grizzly bears.

Wolves - and grizzly bears to a lesser extent - took center stage again Thursday as the FWP commission approved hunting and trapping season regulations and a few administrative rule changes.

FWP Game Bureau Chief Brian Wakeling said his division decided to reduce state wolf quotas out of an abundance of caution. Computer model estimates appear to show that wolf populations have started to decline. So if the existing statewide quota of 450 wolves was retained, the models indicate the population could collapse by 2027.

To make sure the population declines more slowly, FWP proposed a statewide trapping quota of 281 wolves, with quotas in Regions 1, 2 and 3 of 120, 91 and 52 wolves respectively, and smaller quotas in eastern Montana. Wolf Management Unit 313 around Yellowstone National Park would have a quota of six and would be separate from the rest of Region 3.

“We’re looking at a five-year average of harvest. We’re not recommending a reduction in harvest. But we have seen the wolf population reduced in the last two years,” Wakeling said. “We’re proposing to put a cap on the total harvest of wolves, so we can mitigate the pace at which that reduction should continue to go down. There’s a safeguard there.”

But before the meeting, Commissioner Pat Tabor made an amendment to increase the statewide quota to 300 by allowing Region 1 to kill 10 more wolves than proposed, which passed. He also proposed that the commission reevaluate the situation once 25% of the quota is reached. Commissioner Jeff Burrows then proposed an amendment to increase Region 2’s quota by 13, which also passed.

Those amendments were followed by almost two hours of public comment, where trappers opposed the lower quotas, saying the populations needed to be reduced quicker to help elk, moose and bighorn sheep populations. Meanwhile, wolf advocates, while mildly pleased with the original lower quotas, wanted fewer wolves killed next to Yellowstone Park and opposed opening wolf trapping in more grizzly territory.

For the past two years, to avoid trapping grizzly bears, FWP has varied the trapping season opening date in occupied grizzly territory depending on when the bears entered hibernation. But this year, FWP reduced the amount of bear territory, so trapping could now occur while bears are still active in some areas.

“I appreciate the overall more conservative direction in the quotas in the department’s proposal,” said Derek Goldman, Endangered Species Coalition spokesman. “But I compared the maps, and it looks to be about a 25% reduction in the area being considered as occupied by grizzlies. I was shocked by that, because a lot of what I hear coming from the department is how grizzly bears are expanding their range.”

Even so, the commission unanimously approved the amended quotas and new maps for the upcoming season.

The commission also voted to send two proposed administrative rule changes related to wolf and grizzly bear management out to public comment. But, as usually happens with issues dealing with large carnivores, the passionate public comment sometimes veered away from what the commission was to consider.

FWP attorney Sarah Clerget tried to avert some of those comments early in the meeting by saying the commission was only voting whether or not to send the rule language to the Secretary of State. In what appears to be a new process, she emphasized that none of the comments made during the commission meeting would be part of the public record so people should weigh in during the Secretary of State’s comment period.

Clerget said the commission could amend the language of the rules on Thursday, but they could also make amendments after the public comments were submitted. If the commission changes were “substantial” - as determined by Clerget - they would go out to public comment again.

The wolf proposal makes a small language change to allow the rule to reference whatever wolf plan is current, instead of plans written in specific years. Most people, even wolf advocates, supported the proposal. But then, many insisted that the wolf plan should include a citizens advisory committee similar to the one FWP organized for its elk plan.

Quentin Kujala, FWP Chief of Conservation Policy, said the elk plan had an advisory committee because it dealt with issues other than just abundance. An advisory committee isn’t needed because people still have the ability to make public comments, Kujala said.

“We looked at it as a different kind of need,” Kujala said. “When we hear about diverse work group, that advocacy is not necessarily a diverse advocacy. We are hearing that from the non-consumptive. There are others in the room - we haven’t heard the call to sit down from some of those other perspectives.”

Clerget added that the commission can approve administrative rule language but doesn’t have the authority to modify the wolf plan.

The grizzly-bear rule change differed from the wolf rule in that it was required by the Legislature due to Senate Bill 295, which mandated that FWP take certain actions once the grizzly bear is delisted. The most contentious is allowing livestock producers to kill grizzly bears that threaten livestock on public-land allotments.

Many of the 35 commenters were concerned that there was no clear definition of “threatening” and killing grizzlies on public land went too far. Several said nonlethal methods should get more emphasis.

“You have no standards or criteria of when these permits would be issued - they’re entirely subjective. The prospect of people shooting at grizzlies and wounding them is not only unethical, it’s dangerous. You could have wounded bears on the landscape,” said Nick Gevock, Sierra Club spokesman.

In her comment, Rocky Mountain Front rancher Trina Jo Bradley countered, saying producers wouldn’t take a shot if they weren’t sure they could kill the bear, if they shot at all.

The new rule-change process led to confusion among the public, but the commissioners also struggled to understand what they were supposed to be doing. Clerget said SB 295 required the commission to pass the rule, and then after all the public comments came in, it could decide if it wanted changes. Tabor encouraged the commission to follow the process and just approve the rule. But when pressed, Clerget agreed that the commission could also change the language before public comment.

After it was clarified that he could make an amendment, Burrows proposed adding language to the rule that requires a livestock owner to have a nonlethal plan in place with FWP and have tried nonlethal methods such as hazing or fencing before requesting a kill permit.

“I understood that if we had to make a substantial change, it needs to happen today or we’ll be going through this process again,” Burrows said. “This would be a good compromise on public lands. I don’t think we’re adding anything that (FWP is) not already doing, but for the sake of the public, (this is) just assuring them that that will happen. And I don’t think it’s that unreasonable for somebody to have a plan that says we’re going to try these options first.”

The motion passed, and now the rule language goes to the Secretary of State for public comment.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at