The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission tightened wolf hunting rules near Yellowstone National Park and reduced elk shoulder seasons in west-central Montana Thursday.
The subject of elk and wolves together took up the bulk of the rule-making body’s daylong meeting in Helena, which was streamed to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Regional Offices around the state. By the time the agency’s wolf proposals came up towards the end, the commission limited commenters to 3 minutes each.
Wolf management has drawn intense debate since the state took over management of them in 2011, and commenters had plenty to share about the state’s latest proposals. In December, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had suggested reducing the hunting quotas in Wolf Management Units 313 and 316, just north of Yellowstone, from two each to one each. Then, earlier this month, it changed course and proposed keeping them at two.
For Region 1 in the state’s northwest corner, the agency had proposed extending the general wolf hunting season from Sept. 15-March 15 to Aug. 15-March 31, moving the wolf trapping season end date from Feb. 28 to March 15, and increasing the individual limit from five wolves per person to 10.
It fell to the commissioners to adopt or reject these rules. In the weeks leading up to their meeting, the wolf rules received more than 900 comments online, from as far away as Florida, Hawaii and the United Kingdom.
When it came up for discussion, Commissioner Pat Byorth motioned to keep Region 1 on the 2019 wolf hunting regulations, but accept Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ proposal to maintain districts 313’s and 316’s quotas at two wolves each. He explained that in his view, “the Region 1 proposal came late, and it’s a sea change, and it’s going to have implications for wolf management in a bunch of other regions and so to have it at this late date just doesn’t sit right with me.”
As for the wolf quotas in 313 and 316, Byorth argued that reducing them was not likely to increase wolf sightings in Yellowstone or affect the area’s elk population.
The first commenter, Illona Popper of Gardiner, called for a reduction of the Yellowstone-area districts’ quotas to one each — or, ideally, none at all. A member of the Bear Creek Council, she said that “the wolves are valued intrinsically as wildlife that is crucial to our ecosystem also for tourism, which is crucial to our economy and research, which is crucial to the world.”
But soon afterwards, Mark Lambrecht, director of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said that group supported the department’s proposals to both expand offerings in Region 1 and maintain the quotas at two near Yellowstone. “Wolves, like other wildlife, require management according to biological and social capacities. For those reasons, we support the proposal.”
So it went for more than an hour, with some commenters calling on the state to protect wolves’ aesthetic, economic and ecological value, and others calling for greater hunting, mainly out of concern for deer and elk herds. While most commenters in Helena, Missoula and Bozeman opposed increased hunting, all of the commenters in Kalispell demanded it (there was no comment from Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ other regional offices).
Ultimately, Byorth was the only commissioner to vote in support of his motion to maintain the quotas near Yellowstone but keep Region 1 under 2019 regulations. Commissioner Richard Stuker then motioned to keep Region 1 under 2019 regulations but reduce the quotas to one wolf in each of the districts near Yellowstone. That proposal passed unanimously.
The commission also adopted 2020 elk shoulder seasons for several hunting districts in Region 2, which covers west-central Montana.
The state uses shoulder seasons to extend hunting seasons beyond the five-week general period and bring local elk populations closer to population targets known as objectives. After collecting public comment in January, the agency had proposed several changes to elk licensure and season changes in Region 2.
Nine Region 2 hunting districts were above objective and met all harvest criteria. For five of these districts, whose season currently runs from Aug. 15 to Feb. 15, the agency proposed removing the late shoulder season; their end dates would vary by district and license type. The end dates in districts 290 and 298 south of Ovando would come one month earlier.
In the Bitterroot Valley, District 261 would go from August-September and October-February hunting seasons to archery and general seasons that would change with the calendar rotation. The neighboring District 262, which currently follow the same season, would go to an Aug. 15-Jan. 15 season.
Some districts were below objective, but did not meet all their harvest criteria. Districts 204 and 216, both southeast of Missoula, would have the late shoulder season repealed.
Hunting districts that are at or below objective would also see changes. Certain types of licenses would not be valid on Hunting District 217 southeast of Drummond after the general season. District 240 in the west Bitterroot Valley would end Jan. 15. The seasons in Hunting Districts 291, 292 and 293, which extend from Milltown to the Continental Divide, would start Aug. 15 and end with the general season.
In addition to shoulder seasons, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks organizes different types of hunts on private land to limit damage caused by elk, deer and antelope. Stuker voiced doubt that in the absence of shoulder seasons, the agency could administer these hunts to landowners’ satisfaction.
“If you can commit to me that you’re going to have something in place for these damage hunts starting in fall, then I can possibly support this,” he told Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold. “If you cannot tell me that you are going to have something in place, then I am gonna have to stand in opposition to this proposal,” he said.
Arnold acknowledged that improving the hunts would take time, and said that “the onus is on us” to make improvements. The commissioners adopted the seasons, with Stuker voting no.
To see the full range of policies adopted, visit fwp.mt.gov/doingBusiness/insideFwp/commission/, click on “Agendas and Minutes” and select the Feb. 13 meeting.