With Montana’s wolf population on the rise, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is looking at a slate of proposed changes to the state’s wolf hunts. For the most part, these changes make good sense. Allowing backcountry hunters to report a wolf kill within 24 hours of leaving the trailhead – rather than within 24 hours of the kill itself – is one such sensible modification.

But another change has wolf-watchers even far outside Montana’s borders scratching their heads: the proposal to add trapping to the wolf season. That single issue has been the focus of much of the 6,500-plus public comments received by FWP regarding its proposed changes, and the added controversy could potentially derail an already controversial wolf management plan.

Remember, federal protections for wolves in Montana have not been lifted for all that long. They were finally removed from the list of endangered species just last year. Meanwhile, the number of wolves in Montana increased by about 15 percent in 2011, for a total of more than 650 wolves, according to FWP.

This increase has continued despite statewide wolf hunting seasons aimed at reducing that number. These hunts have not been as successful as they could be; last season’s hunt was extended into February of this year when it became clear the number of wolf kills was far below the state’s quota of 220 wolves.

That’s the sort of thing FWP is presumably hoping to avoid in the future by offering trappers the opportunity to bag up to three wolves each – two by trapping and one by hunting. Currently, a general wolf license allows hunters to kill only one wolf.

However, FWP cannot increase the per-person bag limit without legislative approval; apparently, there is no similar requirement for wolf trapping.

FWP officials may have authority to increase the wolf kill limit through trapping, but that’s not a good enough reason to actually do so. FWP’s original proposal was the better one. It would have sought the necessary approval in the next legislative session to increase the wolf kill limit for hunters. The only hangup is that since the next legislative session won’t begin until January 2013, an expanded limit if approved would not happen in time for this season.

But the expanded limits would be in place for future wolf hunting seasons – and still should be. It would be the more direct, honest way to accomplish what FWP is now proposing to do in a circuitous fashion, and would avoid the need to make several other trapping-specific changes to the current rules, such as allowing trappers who complete wolf trapping courses in Idaho to trap in Montana without taking Montana’s course.

It’s telling that one of these proposed changes would spell out a requirement that trappers immediately release non-injured “non-target” animals caught in their traps, and immediately report injured non-target animals they inadvertently catch. Let’s not increase the likelihood of injuring “non-target” species – or even start down that road.

The FWP commission will vote on the proposed changes at its meeting in Helena this Thursday, July 12. And for the most part, commissioners need not hesitate to approve them. But the trapping component needs to be set aside. It’s cruel, it’s controversial and it’s just not necessary right now.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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