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Gray wolf

A gray wolf rests in tall grass. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday that it would delist wolves in Wyoming and approve the state’s management and hunting plans.

HAMILTON – Montana’s wolf hunters and trappers killed 36 percent more animals in the season that ended last week, but Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener said the state’s wolf population still remains robust.

The wolf season ended on Feb. 28 with a total harvest of 225 wolves.

“We’re generally pleased with these results,” said Hagener. “The overall harvest of 225 wolves this season is higher than last year and reflects the more liberal harvest opportunities that were added in 2012. The effectiveness of hunters and now trappers together continues to grow.”

The decision by state wildlife officials to add trapping as a tool to manage wolves this past season and extend the season into February made a significant difference.

The majority of wolves taken this season came after the end of the general hunting season, when most wolves are killed as a result of a chance encounter in the field.

All but 20 of the 84 wolves killed before the general season ended on Nov. 25 were opportunistically taken by hunters looking for other game animals.

Most wolves killed this season were taken by hunters or trappers solely focused on that species.

“The best news is that hunters and trappers, the core of Montana’s wildlife conservation program, are helping us manage Montana’s most recently recovered native species,” Hagener said.

A total of 18,642 wolf hunting licenses were sold this past season. Another 1,500 trappers purchased trapping licenses. More than 2,500 people participated in mandatory wolf trapping classes held by FWP last fall.

Statewide, hunters harvested 128 wolves and trappers killed 97.

More than half of the harvest occurred on public lands. The top three counties for wolf harvest were Lincoln with 38, Park with 24 and Missoula with 22.

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In FWP’s Region 2, trappers outperformed hunters despite the fact their season was considerably shorter.

The wolf trapping season ran from Dec. 15 to Feb. 28. The wolf hunting season was open 181 days from Sept. 1 through Feb. 28.

A total of 71 wolves were harvested this past season in Region 2. Last season, 45 were taken by hunters.

Trappers harvested 38 in Region 2. Hunters shot 33, said regional wildlife manager, Mike Thompson.

“Trapping made all the difference,” Thompson said. “It gave people the tool they needed that matched the lifestyle and habits of wolves.”

Sportsmen learned last season that hunting wolves was very hard, he said.

“There were a lot of people who put a lot of time and effort into it last year and came up empty,” Thompson said. “It’s not the kind of effort that many people will sustain. The trouble with hunting is that you have to be in the same place at the same time.”

With trapping, Thompson said people just need to find the right place.

A change in hunting regulations adopted this year by the Legislature that will allow the use of electronic calls may enhance hunter opportunity.

“I think it will help,” Thompson said. “It will add a tool that might encourage to go out and give it a try.”

The wolf harvest in the Bitterroot Valley remained relatively static between this season and last.

Hunters harvested six and trappers took eight in Ravalli County this season for a total of 14. Last season, hunters killed 13.

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Even with the successful hunting and trapping season, Hagener said the state’s wolf population remains robust.

In 2011, the state estimated the wolf population at more than 650 animals before the start of the hunting season. In addition to the 225 killed this season, another 104 were killed in control actions throughout the year.

Officials estimated that it would take a harvest of nearly 400 wolves to reduce the minimum population below 500 in the state.

“We need to achieve a reduction,” Hagener said. “Montana has made room for wolves, we are long past the period of recovering wolves, and we are committed to managing for a recovered population.

“We also need to remember it is FWP’s responsibility to manage with an eye to how all of our special wild resources affect each other and address issues such as public tolerance, including that of landowners. That is what we continually hear the public asking us to do.”

Wildlife managers are currently compiling information that will be used to estimate the state’s 2012 wolf population. Those numbers are expected to released in late March.

This season was the third in which Montana has allowed wolves to be hunted since 2009. Court challenges barred Montana’s hunting season in 2010.

The 2013 Legislature recently passed a FWP-supported bill that will further liberalize the state’s wolf hunting season.

The bill that passed Feb. 13 with bipartisan support will allow hunters to purchase up to three wolf licenses and lowered the price of a nonresident tag from $350 to $50. Wolf hunters will be able to use their licenses 24 hours after purchase, having to wait five days as required under old regulations. Electronic calls will be allowed and wolf hunters won’t be required to wear hunter orange after the end of the general hunting season.

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Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Northwest Montana Reporter

Ravalli Republic Associate Editor