State Rep. Bob Brown said frustrated constituents told him they wanted more ways and opportunities to kill wolves.
The Republican from Thompson Falls said sportsmen complained of encountering fewer elk, deer and moose during hunting seasons and blamed the canine predators as a key culprit.
Brown responded by introducing six bills this legislative session intended to make it easier and cheaper to shoot or trap wolves.
One controversial bill sponsored by Brown would have allowed night hunting of wolves on private lands.
The “private lands” distinction was added as an amendment after an initial hearing before the House committee on Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The bill died Thursday in the Montana House, with 44 representatives voting “yes” and 56 voting “no.”
Brown’s impression on the House floor of a wolf howl failed to win over colleagues who expressed concerns that night hunting would be unethical, dangerous and encourage wildlife poaching.
State Rep. Mark Sweeney, D-Philipsburg, said he is a longtime hunter and told colleagues he felt House Bill 551 was a bad bill.
“I find it offensive that the word ‘hunting’ is even in this bill,” Sweeney said.
Opponents to HB 551 included the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Audubon and the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club.
One complaint about the bill was that it would have violated ethical standards of “fair chase.” Other concerns suggested night hunting of a big game animal would set a bad precedent, possibly facilitate poaching of other game animals and create a dangerous situation in which a nocturnal shooter might not know what was behind his or her intended target.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation had observed that the bill would have bypassed the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission and FWP.
A statement from the elk foundation said the organization “strongly supports management of wolves through lawful and regulated hunting and trapping as practiced under the ethical code of fair chase.”
The foundation said decisions about wildlife management, including the management of wolves, should be made by the wildlife commission and FWP “rather than the Montana Legislature.”
Before Thursday’s vote, Brown said he believes wolves can have a noticeable impact on ungulate populations.
“I believe they do,” he said. “It’s not just a wolf issue. It’s a predator issue.”
Brown said he hears from constituents who are convinced that an increased population of mountain lions also is affecting deer and elk numbers. He acknowledged other forces also affect ungulate populations, such as back-to-back harsh winters and changes in habitat tied to wildfire or timber cuts.
Meanwhile, Montana wildlife officials report that wolf kill tallies show a record number of the animals have been killed by hunters or trappers so far this season, with numbers likely to rise in the weeks ahead.
That’s true both statewide and for FWP’s Region 1 in Northwest Montana.
Specifically, as of Wednesday, 110 wolves had been killed in Region 1 since archery and general hunting seasons began in September and the trapping season began in mid-December. Two of those wolves were killed illegally.
The statewide tally as of Wednesday was 308, compared to a total of 254 in 2017. The general hunting season for wolves ends March 15. Of the 308, 163 were killed by hunters, 125 died via trapping and the remaining deaths were attributed to other causes.
On Feb. 21, when the House committee on Fish, Wildlife and Parks held a hearing on Brown’s HB 551, proponents said it would simply add one more tool to deal with wolves, whose numbers they said are too high. They suggested adding night hunting would not significantly increase the wolf harvest or encourage poaching.
The latest FWP estimates for wolf numbers are 850 wolves statewide and 350 wolves in Region 1.
If the statewide population estimate drops below 150 animals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could decide to restore protections for the animal under the Endangered Species Act.
The federal wildlife service has described the recovery of the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains as one of the nation’s greatest conservation success stories.
The House committee on Fish, Wildlife and Parks also held a hearing Feb. 21 on a bill sponsored by Brown that would have removed “setbacks” that require trappers to set traps a minimum of 150 feet from gated or closed roads on public lands.
The current trapping season began Dec. 15 and ended Thursday.
Opponents of House Bill 552 said closed roads in winter often attract cross country skiers, snowshoe enthusiasts, hikers and their dogs and that removing the setbacks could endanger people and pets.
KC York, founder and executive director of Trap Free Montana, told the committee that dogs and even children who are naturally curious would be at risk if setbacks are removed from the roads.
She said scents and baits used in trapping attract dogs.
Ultimately, the committee tabled HB 552. Brown said Thursday that he might tinker with the draft bill and pursue passage of a different version.
Other wolf-related bills introduced by Brown could make it easier and cheaper to get a license to hunt wolves. The current license fee for a wolf hunt is $19. Each hunter can kill up to five wolves per season, with a license required for each.
Another bill sponsored by Brown would reimburse trappers for costs incurred in trapping wolves. Opponents contend such reimbursement would act as a sort of bounty on the animal.
During the February 21 committee meeting, Mark Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, said he believes there already are plenty of opportunities for people who are determined to kill a wolf.
He suggested that if someone truly feels compelled to kill a wolf he or she just might have to work a little harder.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.