With only four months until the start of the Legislative session, people are already developing ideas for the next round of wildlife bills, although some caution against more wolf-killing bills.

Members of the Legislative Environmental Quality Council spent Thursday and Friday getting department updates and reviewing proposals for department bills that would be pre-introduced in the Legislature. Not surprisingly, it was the Fish, Wildlife & Parks update on wolves that sparked some debate.

Wildlife Division administrator Ken McDonald told the committee that despite the wolf hunting and trapping laws passed in the 2021 Legislature, the wolf situation remained fairly stable, with similar numbers of wolves, packs, and hunting and trapping tags sold last year.

At the end of 2021, FWP biologists estimated that 1,144 wolves remained in 92 packs, based upon computer models. Last season, 273 wolves were killed with slightly more than half of those killed by trappers.

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The report didn’t please Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who had sponsored most of the wolf bills in the last session. He said hunters and trappers could have killed more wolves if FWP hadn’t “put on criteria and conditions so we ended up with the lowest harvest in the last four years.”

Fielder criticized FWP for delaying the opening of the trapping season in areas inhabited by grizzly bears and the fact that snares were limited to private land in lynx habitat.

“It was stated on the floor last session that this is not about ethical or fair chase, it was about reducing the number of wolves. Management starts with M-A-N, man. We’ve got to take control of things,” Fielder said. “As we go into this next Legislative session, we’ve got to look at how we can meet the intent of the Legislation that was passed in 2021.”

McDonald explained that both grizzly bears and lynx are threatened species, so FWP has to be careful about which activities are allowed in grizzly and lynx habitat. Because the winter was so mild in December, bears stayed active through the month, so FWP had to push the trapping date back. FWP was sued a few years ago for allowing trapping in lynx habitat, so the department doesn’t want to be sued again and put the trapping season in jeopardy. McDonald pointed out that other bills liberalized the wolf season by increasing the number of wolves each hunter could kill and extending the season.

“The intent is not to ignore the statute. The intent is to not lose all of our wolf trapping ability because of potential take of grizzly bears,” McDonald said.

Vice-chair Bradley Hamlett praised FWP’s management, pleased that the wolf population and depredation were under control. Hamlett said that about a dozen years ago, he met with legislators from other western states to figure out how to delist the wolves and get them under state control. Montana was the first to do so, while other states were delayed because they insisted on more extreme measures.
“I would caution legislators from coming up with new and unique ways to kill wolves. Because politically, this is a red state, the federal government is blue. If you keep introducing legislation that’s going to appear to the federal government that this is a harassment and endangerment of wolves, they could take it back. Then you don’t have state management,” Hamlett said. “This also will follow into the delisting of grizzly bears if it’s perceived that we’re not managing wolves the way we think we should.”

Also on Friday, the committee approved 14 of 15 bills proposed by FWP, some of which would just clean up the language of previous bills or improve consistency.

The two bills that prompted some committee discussion dealt with shooting wildlife from the road and reimbursement limits for landowners enrolled in the Block Management Program.

New FWP chief legal counsel Sarah Clerget, who previously worked for the Department of Environmental Quality, said the first bill just clarified that no game could be shot from a public road. The law already says hunters can’t shoot deer, elk or antelope from a road, but FWP wants to clarify that applies to all hunted wildlife, specifically predators such as wolves. Clerget said it was a public safety issue.

That drew negative responses from committee member John Brendan and committee chair, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. Brendan said that if he saw a predator as he was driving down the road, he wanted to be able to stop and shoot it.

“That’s totally ridiculous to make a blanket statement on that,” Brendan said.

Clerget pointed out that a different law allows landowners to shoot predators that are attacking livestock. Lang said it would be a hassle for landowners to have to prove their intent.

The second bill would double the amount landowners could receive for participating in the Block Management Program. It was prompted by discussions of the Private Land Public Wildlife working group, which tries to find ways to improve relations between hunters and landowners.

Under the Block Management Program, FWP reimburses participating landowners, using sportsmen’s dollars, for any wear-and-tear on their property caused by public hunters. The 2021 Legislature increased the total amount a landowner could receive to $25,000 from $15,000 for the hunting season based on a rate of $13 per hunter-day.

PLPW chairman Ed Beall said that since the start of the pandemic, Block Management lands have gotten a lot more use since more people are showing up to hunt. Beall said 22 landowners had more hunters last year than the $25,000 paid for, so the PLPW suggested upping the per-day amount to $18.

The committee didn’t question raising the reimbursement cap to $50,000, but some did question some language that gives the FWP director discretion to choose different daily rates for each landowner. Currently, all landowners receive the same daily rate. Clerget said the daily rate didn’t have to change but the higher cap would provide flexibility. Lang pointed out that such a high cap could potentially allow some landowners to get the same total amount with fewer hunters.

“I think this legislation would, down the road, create winners and losers,” said Sen. Jimmy Keane, D-Butte.

The committee initially voted 9-7 to allow all but the two bills to be pre-introduced, which moves them to the head of the line. But then the committee subsequently voted unanimously to approve the block management bill.

Normally, state departments have to first find sponsors to introduce and carry their bills before the bills can go through the drafting process. But if interim committees vote to pre-introduce the bills, the departments can save time by drafting the bills and getting them in the queue before they find a sponsor. All the bills still have to go through the full Legislative process.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.