Emotions were strong as hundreds of hunters and trappers from Northwest Montana made their feelings known about wolves in the region at a gathering Wednesday at the Red Lion in Kalispell.
The meeting, one of a handful that have been held in Region 1 this winter, was organized by the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Game, and Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management.
Thompson Falls resident Glenn Schenavar opened the meeting, explaining the goals of the groups, primarily to reduce wolf numbers in Northwest Montana to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated objective of 150.
That figure is the minimum threshold to keep wolves off the federal endangered species list, which allows states to manage wolves.
“We are deeply concerned about the reduction of elk in our mountains and our goals are to reduce wolf populations and improve wildlife habitat here,” Schenavar said.
The goals of the two groups are:
• Reduce wolf numbers to management objectives set by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated objective of 150 in Montana;
• Extending current trapping seasons;
• Change setbacks for trapping;
• Obtain reimbursement for ethical hunters and trappers for expenses incurred while harvesting wolves;
• Reintroduction of ungulates in areas impacted by wolves;
• Working with federal and state legislators to change existing laws;
• Working with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to find common ground to develop solutions.
Wolves have always evoked strong emotions among people, no matter their political leanings, or whether they are hunters or animal lovers.
As the West was settled, wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to the point where they weren’t killing rancher’s livestock and competing with hunters for the prized elk and deer that were depended on for sustenance.
But wolves from Canada slowly made their way back into the North Fork region of Northwest Montana 40 years ago and efforts by the federal government helped re-establish populations in the Yellowstone National Park area.
Today, Fish and Game officials estimate there are 850 wolves in Montana, including 350 in the Northwest part of the state.
While Schenavar and others from Montana Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife were restrained in their feelings about wolves, many in the audience were not.
Some thought it was time to return to using poison or aerial shooters to control wolf numbers.
While the general rifle season runs from Sept. 15, 2018, to March 15, and allows each hunter with required licenses that cost $19 each to kill up to five wolves, sportsmen are looking for a little bit more when it comes to trapping.
The current trapping season began Dec. 15, 2018 and ends Feb. 28. A license costs $20.
Trappers are seeking a season that begins earlier than mid-December because snow and ice that are common at that time of year make it more difficult to keep traps set and functioning properly.
Trappers also are seeking less restrictive setbacks, which dictate that traps must be located a minimum of 150 feet from open roads and hiking trails on public federal and state lands.
Neil Anderson, the wildlife program manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Region 1, and Diane Boyd, Region 1’s wolf-management specialist, had a few responses to some of the things the group was hoping to change.
Boyd, who is one of the leading wolf experts in North America, has studied them for 40 years in Northwest Montana.
“We’ve had to release grizzlies from wolf traps and it’s asking a lot of our people to put them in such a situation,” Boyd said. “Earlier trapping seasons may increase those instances.”
Anderson pointed out the restrictions are necessary for a variety of reasons, including the number of people hiking with their dogs on public lands. He noted there is a bill in the Legislature that would limit setbacks on seasonally closed roads.
Anderson also addressed aerial shooting programs, saying Idaho spent $75,000 on it and bagged 10 wolves.
“That’s a lot of money for not very many wolves,” he said.
Anderson reminded hunters and trappers that Fish, Wildlife & Parks is not telling anyone to not harvest wolves.
“We have a season that runs six months and each hunter can take five wolves. Hunters and trappers are our best managers,” Anderson said. “But wolves aren’t just standing by the road, they are pretty darn smart.
“Our only objective was to not go below 150 wolves,” he added.
Wildlife habitat was another topic of discussion among the group.
“We definitely have a habitat problem,” Schenavar said. “We need more forest management. Our mature forests aren’t providing enough forage for elk and moose and that doesn’t help.”
That was one sentiment most agreed with.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Government Affairs Director Mark Lambrecht also spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I urge everyone to contact your representatives and tell them how you feel about some of the legislation that has been introduced,” Lambrecht said.
Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, brought forth bills that would add wolf licenses to existing hunting combination licenses. House Bill 280 would add a wolf license to the current sportsman license that includes black bear, deer, elk, upland bird and fishing licenses. House Bill 281 would add a wolf license to nonresident combination license holders as well as provide a discounted wolf license to holders of nonresident antlerless deer or elk permits.
Another bill sponsored by Brown would allow wolf trappers to be reimbursed for their costs. The bill is in response to interest from the Foundation for Wildlife Management, an organization that has commenced an expense reimbursement program for trappers and hunters in Idaho. The organization says it reimburses hunters and trappers for their costs for every legally harvested wolf in that state.
Anderson reminded the assembled group that there won’t be any one solution.
“There’s not going to be an “easy” button that we can just press and have everything the way you want it,” Anderson said.
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org