HELENA - The Bitterroot Valley's wolves and Yellowstone National Park's bison were the subject of emotional discussions during Thursday's monthly Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting.
The commission gave initial approval to controversial proposals to extend the wolf hunting season in the upper Bitterroot and to use hunters to kill bison that stray out of a containment area outside of Yellowstone National Park.
Both proposals now go out for a 30-day public comment period.
Commissioner Ron Moody, who voted against both proposals, made it clear that he questioned whether the measures are ethical and the proper use of recreational hunters.
"Fair chase hunting is not infinitely elastic," Moody said. "It has limits and I think we are at those limits, and what I really think is we have gone past them.
"... It does matter and it is important: what you do when you call yourself an ethical hunter and when you do it. It can result in the diminishing stature of hunters in the public's mind."
Moody and Commissioner Bob Ream, who also voted against extending the wolf hunting season until April 1 or when the area's quota of 18 gray wolves is met, voiced concerns about killing the animals during their reproductive season.
So far, only four wolves have been killed by hunters in the area along the Idaho border.
Ream and Moody, along with some members of the public who spoke at the meeting, also questioned whether removing 18 wolves from the Bitterroot would help the faltering elk population, since an ongoing study is showing that more elk calves there are being killed by mountain lions and bears than by wolves.
"If we are concerned about the elk populations in (the Bitterroot), we are shooting at the wrong target," Ream said.
He later made a motion to increase the number of mountain lion permits in the area. That passed unanimously and also is out for public comment.
Ream added that extending the wolf season beyond its current expiration date of Feb. 15 may be a moot point, since with new snow, hunters may be able to better track and kill wolves, filling the quota.
Ben Lamb of the Montana Wildlife Federation said he understands their concerns, but lowering the number of wolves in the Bitterroot is just one piece of the process that could help the elk herd rebound. Others who spoke at the meeting agreed with him.
Last year, the commission set a quota of 220 wolves that could be killed by hunters in Montana during the 2011-12 season; 137 have been taken.
The bison management proposal would involve using licensed hunters to kill bison outside of the defined tolerance area north of Yellowstone.
FWP Director Joe Maurier said the proposal, which was approved by the commission 4-1, is part of the state's effort to find more tolerance for bison in Montana. Bison that roam north out of Yellowstone currently are allowed on about 75,000 acres south of Yankee Jim Canyon, but not north of Dome Mountain into the Paradise Valley or east of the Yellowstone River. That's a change from previous policy, under which they were either hazed back into the park or rounded up and put into holding pens, with some taken to slaughter.
"Essentially, what we have done is moved the line and now we want to figure out how to manage bison beyond that line," Maurier said. "Are hunters the best way? I don't know. One school of thought is that when they cross the line anybody can take them anytime and just let us know. We are trying to find out the answer to the problem and that's open to discussion."
Stephany Seay of the Buffalo Field Campaign urged the commission to change the bison's wildlife status in Montana instead of just killing more bison. She was part of a small group in front of the FWP building Thursday morning protesting the proposal.
"You can't just keep killing wildlife and confining wildlife because their presence is a minor inconvenience to a few," Seay said. "I think we need to learn how to coexist in a more meaningful and a more sustainable way."
Within the next few days, FWP will set up ways for the public to comment on both proposals during the next 30 days. The matters will be back before the commission at its February meeting.