HELENA — The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on Thursday approved a more expansive wolf-hunting season in Montana this year, allowing trapping of wolves for the first time and raising the per-hunter bag limit from one wolf to three.
The 4-0 vote, with one commissioner abstaining, came in the wake of thousands of public comments, many of which objected to trapping as inhumane and a “radical departure” from previous hunting policy.
Yet the commission also heard from sportsmen’s groups, ranchers and others who favored trapping of wolves, the higher bag limit, and the elimination of a statewide quota on the number of wolves that could be killed.
“There is a heck of a lot of people who either hate wolves, love wolves and don’t want to see any killed, and there is a lot in between,” said Commission Chairman Bob Ream, remarking on the more than 7,000 comments received by the panel. “This is a tough issue.
“It’s become so polarized. My hope for the future is that we can get to the point where we treat this large predator like we do any large predator, like mountain lions.”
Commissioners said the new hunting rules are consistent with the state’s plan to manage the wolf population and keep it high enough so wolves are “delisted” under the Endangered Species Act.
“The idea that we’re going to wipe out wolves through hunting is fairly far-fetched,” said Commissioner Dan Vermillion of Livingston. “The goal is not to exterminate wolves, it’s to manage them.”
The 2012-13 wolf season will begin Sept. 1 for archery hunters, Sept. 15 for backcountry rifle-hunting and Oct. 15 for all other rifle-hunting, and run through Feb. 28. Trapping, however, won’t be allowed to start until Dec. 15.
Hunters can take up to three wolves during the season, but only one wolf with a rifle. A statewide quota will be lifted, but quotas will remain in two hunting districts near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
The commission also directed the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to conduct an early-December review of the wolf harvest, after which the panel would decide if any adjustments should be made for the rest of the scheduled season.
This year’s hunt is Montana’s second wolf season after a one-year hiatus, following a federal court decision that blocked wolf hunting in the state. An act of Congress allowed Montana to resume state management of the wolf, begun initially in 2009.
Ken McDonald, chief of the department’s Wildlife Bureau, said Montana’s wolf population has grown to about 650 animals and 39 breeding pairs. Last season, 166 wolves were killed by hunters in Montana, less than the 220-wolf quota, he said.
Thursday’s vote came after two hours of public testimony, with many wolf advocates arguing that the trapping is not necessary and goes too far.
“It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s barbaric and it’s uncalled for,” said Kim Bean of Helena, who said she spends a lot of time near Yellowstone National Park with her horses and dogs. “You need to stop this trapping. It’s not fair chase.”
Yet several sportsmen’s and trappers’ groups spoke in favor of the more expansive hunt this year.
John Hughes, a Winnett-area rancher and member of the Montana Trappers Association, also said it’s important that trapping is done property, and asked the state to work with his group on education programs required for trappers.
“Without a ton of ethics and a ton of experience, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said. “Trapping is under major attack, and we are going to be under the microscope.”