Establishing a roster of wolf trappers, implementing a bounty system or changing the rules about hunting wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park all were ideas bandied about at a Fish, Wildlife and Parks special meeting Friday.
The ideas came from members of the Montana Wolf Management Advisory Council, which helped develop Montana’s wolf management plan 10 years ago and reconvened this week in Helena to give the FWP Commission and department feedback on their implementation of the plan.
The overview comes one month before the FWP Commission sets tentative rules for the 2013-14 wolf hunting and trapping season, and the same day the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the 2012 Annual Report for the Northern Rocky Mountain (NRM) Gray Wolf Population.
Overall, the council members complimented the department on its wolf management activities, and said they were amazed at the amount of new science that’s been developed since the plan was written. However, they also noted that a lot has changed since wolves were delisted and urged FWP to remain flexible when dealing with wolves.
Chase Hibbard, the council chairman, said it was a good discussion about how FWP should proceed.
“There was a lot of discussion about wolf numbers, and I think the consensus is more or less not to meddle with the process that’s going on and that it would be a mistake to set a quota,” Hibbard said. “You need more tools, maybe a bounty … or a trapper roster possibly to be used in situations where population control is needed, maybe on private land or private and public land.”
He noted that the council members also spoke at length — as did members of the public — about being sensitive to the area around Yellowstone National Park. Competing economic interests in the area, between outfitters who say there are too many elk and tourist groups that say the increase in wolves is drawing sightseers. Collared wolves that were part of a park study were killed by hunters during the last season, which prompted a temporary closure that was litigated.
“I think you should combine Wolf Management Units 313 and 316 into one and permanently limit the quota to one wolf,” said Ilona Popper of Gardiner. “I think you should resume using quotas because that allows public debate about what the number of wolves is that we’re talking about.”
FWP Director Jeff Hagener said they purposely didn’t set quotas because they don’t do that for other predators, and when they did it in the past for wolves they were criticized when the quota wasn’t met.
“Harvest is pretty proportional to the number of wolves out there,” he said. “Without setting a quota, nobody is saying that you wanted to take 250 but you only took 225 and so you failed. So we are staying away from that. We also don’t have a target for the number of wolves on the landscape that we want because we’re still learning. We’re moving from the recovery side to the management side and we’re really only two years into it.”
Council member Jim Cross also urged FWP to proceed cautiously when it comes to special treatment near the national park.
“Be careful setting aside areas because of the financial gain of some other shareholder,” Cross warned. “Be careful you don’t set that precedent because it could snowball.”
Council member Robin Hompesch voiced concerns about what she sees as the increasing polarization of people regarding wolf management, and urged FWP to do more public outreach, especially to nonhunters.
“When we started the first scoping meetings, the rooms were packed with tons of people who yelled until midnight. Then later when we went out there was no one. They weren’t happy with all aspects of the plan but they thought it was balanced,” she said. “Within the last five years it seems like there’s been a re-eruption of public anger and I think we’ve gone back to a volatile situation.
“I’m not sure where to go with that and would like that to be a part of the public discussion.”
Hagener readily acknowledged the need for more outreach, but noted that with hunters and anglers providing his agency’s funding, they tend to want FWP to focus on their concerns and needs. He said the efforts to raise money with an excise tax on items like binoculars, hiking boots and bird seed haven’t gotten much traction.
“Nationwide we are getting more interest from the nonconsuming side; they’re not anti-hunting or fishing but nonconsuming … like bird watching,” he said. “So it’s getting more of an emphasis.”
At the end of the meeting, Hagener said it was a good session and he encouraged the council members to contact him if they have additional ideas or concerns.
“This has been helpful to us,” he said. “Somebody said very strongly that we need to listen to the public and we pride ourselves on that. We get abused regularly from people saying we didn’t do enough and get sued regularly … but that’s because people are passionate about the resource.”