BILLINGS – A proposal to relax gray wolf hunting and trapping rules in Montana got a cool reception from Yellowstone National Park administrators who said Monday the move appears to be aimed at substantially reducing the park’s population of the animals.
Wolves regularly cross from the hunting-free safe haven of Yellowstone into Montana, where wildlife officials want to drive down pack numbers in response to complaints about the predators from ranchers and big-game hunters.
Montana wildlife commissioners are scheduled on Wednesday to take final action on proposals to lengthen the wolf season, increase the bag limit and set quotas around the park.
Park administrators complained Monday that some of the changes would make it too easy to target wolves that live primarily in Yellowstone.
The move to loosen hunting and trapping rules was driven in part by the Montana Legislature, which passed measures last session increasing the number of wolves that could be taken by individual hunters and trappers and prohibiting the formation of a no-hunting buffer zone around Yellowstone.
In response to the concerns raised by Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk and others, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Monday that the agency is recommending revisions to the original proposal tentatively adopted in May.
The changes include a bag limit of just one wolf per person in areas adjacent to the park and an increase in the area where quotas will apply.
However, the quota for the Gardiner area north of Yellowstone still would exceed what the park wants in terms of the number of wolves that could be killed and the size of the quota areas.
Yellowstone’s chief scientist Dave Hallac said he appreciated the changes but added that it was unclear whether the commissioners will accept the agency’s recommendations.
“The park is not anti-hunting,” Hallac said. “What we’re trying to do is balance the conservation of wolves in Yellowstone, which are not an exploited population right now, with some level of reasonable harvest.”
Wildlife commission chairman Dan Vermillion said the move to lower the bag limit to one wolf near Yellowstone – versus five animals elsewhere in the state – was about increasing hunter opportunity, so that one hunter couldn’t fill the entire quota.
But he stressed that the state wanted to avoid setting a precedent by treating wolves that come out of the park differently than other animals.
“Once those wolves come into Montana, they become Montana wildlife and we need to manage them,” Vermillion said.
Several wolves that were well-known among Yellowstone wildlife watchers were killed in Montana during the 2012-13 hunting season. They were among 12 wolves living primarily in Yellowstone that were killed after crossing into adjacent areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Under pressure from the park and advocacy groups, Montana wildlife commissioners tried to set up a no-kill buffer zone east and west of the town of Gardiner, but a judge struck down those restrictions after ranchers and property rights advocates sued.
Aasheim said the recommendations that his agency has made are intended to strike a balance.
“You can’t please everybody,” he said. “We’ve gotten 25,000 comments and you’ve got to do the thing that’s most reasonable.”