Montana lawmakers will consider about a dozen bills in the coming weeks that could shape the future of wolf management and trapping in the state.
Wolves and trapping have traditionally been contentious issues in Montana and this legislature is poised to have more debate about both than in the last few sessions.
Lawmakers have drafted bills on either side of the spectrum, with several pieces of legislation to expand wolf harvest to one that would study the non-hunting economic value of wolves.
On trapping, legislators have brought forth bills to require daily checks of traps and elimination of snares on public lands, while other bills would allow reimbursement for wolf trappers and limit trap setbacks from seasonally closed roads.
And while most of the legislation is likely to see firm camps for and against, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are bringing bills to institute mandatory trapper education, similar to that of hunter education.
Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, has drafted a package of bills to increase the sale of wolf licenses and to push for a higher wolf harvest in Montana.
Brown says that after speaking to hunters in northwest Montana, including a meeting in Trout Creek attended by about 200 people, hunters are reporting fewer deer and elk but seeing an abundance of wolf sign.
“Region 1 where I’m from appears to be overrun” with wolves, he said.
Northwest Montana is also coming off two hard winters, which area biologists have said resulted in significant winter kill for deer.
Brown is carrying two bills that would add wolf licenses to existing hunting combination licenses. HB 280 would add a wolf license to the current sportsman license that includes black bear, deer, elk, upland bird and fishing licenses. HB 281 would add a wolf license to nonresident combination license holders as well as provide a discounted wolf license to holders of nonresident antlerless deer or elk permits.
Brown also is sponsoring HB 279, which would allow wolf trappers to be reimbursed for their costs. The bill is in response to interest from the Foundation for Wildlife Management, an organization that has commenced an expense reimbursement program for trappers and hunters in Idaho. The organization says it reimburses up to $1,000 for every legally harvested wolf in that state.
Brown has one additional bill draft, but has not decided whether to introduce it, that would allow the hunting of wolves at night. While nighttime hunting is not restricted for some animals, such as coyotes or foxes, wolves as big game animals may currently only be hunted during daylight hours.
Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, is bringing a package of bills that would place new restrictions on trapping.
HB 287 would require trappers to check traps daily. Currently, wolf traps and bobcat traps set in lynx management zones must be checked every 48 hours. Other traps fall under a 48-hour recommended check.
Smith believes the required checks and recommendations may not be strictly followed and that not all domestic dogs unintentionally caught in traps are reported as required by law. Reducing the time an animal is caught in a trap decreases the chance of injury, she said.
“I’m bringing these bills for Montanans who have lost pets and I don’t like suffering,” she said.
The bill does not differentiate between traps designed to hold an animal alive from those designed to kill the animal. It does allow another licensed trapper to check traps for up to one week if special circumstances arise.
Smith has also drafted a bill that would ban the use of snares on public lands in Montana. She says the bill is due to concerns about domestic dogs, including expensive hunting dogs, that may be unintentionally caught.
Smith says the goals of the legislation are not to outlaw trapping but to foster a safer environment for other recreationists.
“I don’t like the fox eating the chickens either,” she said of using trapping to control predation, “but I believe the people that have had their pets harmed need a voice.”
Smith’s final piece of legislation would mandate trapper education for all new trappers to promote ethics, she said.
Also drafting a mandatory trapper education bill is Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield. He noted that mandatory trapper education bills have failed several times previously, and last summer the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission attempted to mandate education with an administrative rule – a move that was later withdrawn due to legal concerns about a lack of authority.
Mandatory trapper education has been supported by both trapping and anti-trapping organizations in Montana.
“After talking to (Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks) I agreed to the bill draft request,” Doane said. “I really didn’t have a problem with the language they used, but the process was to go through the legislature.”
The trapping bills come after nearly 63 percent of voters in 2016 voted down a ballot initiative to ban trapping on public lands. Since that vote, Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, believes that increasing regulations are “increasingly finding ways to make trapping impossible.”
Fielder is drafting a bill that aims to limit trap “set back” regulations on seasonally closed roads. Set backs are the distance from a road, campground, trail or trailhead that a trap may be set in an effort to reduce conflicts with other recreationists. But Fielder believes roads that may be open part of the year and closed others should be regulated differently than roads open year-round, so the bill seeks to clarify the definition of an “open road.”
“If a road was open one day during the year, even if that road may be very remote, you can’t trap near that,” she said, adding that road corridors are effective places to trap for many species and the roads in question see little human activity during the winter.
Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, has introduced bills to curb hunting and trapping of wolves near Yellowstone National Park and to study the economic impacts of wolves and grizzly bears.
SB 185 would eliminate wolf harvest in hunting districts 313 and 316, which are on a quota that allows harvest of only a handful of wolves.
“The four (wolves) we’re talking about represent an insignificant number of those that are already taken in our recreational killing program for gray wolves,” Phillips said. “It really has no demographic impact to the state’s efforts, and moreover, the units are so small, it doesn’t having any aerial impact because you can still hunt gray wolves across nearly all of Montana.”
Phillips, a wildlife biologist and Yellowstone wolf expert, says he has considered bringing the bill for some time and it is not related to a recent high profile shooting of a notable wolf near Cooke City. He believes wolves that migrate from the park a short distance into Montana are naïve and conditioned to humans as a nonthreat.
“There’s virtually no fair chase component to the hunting,” he said. “These animals live nearly their whole lives in Yellowstone National Park where there is no reason to give (people) a second thought, no reason to fear the shuttering of a car door, because in the park none of it matters.”
Phillips cited two lesser reasons for his interest in the bill, saying that some of the wolves killed are part of larger research projects and others have gained notoriety as “famous” animals that have major followings. While Phillips has never named wolves in his research, he says he does understand those ties people have developed in following individual animals.
Phillips has also introduced SJ 7, a joint resolution requesting a legislative study of the costs and value of wolves and grizzly bears to related to agriculture, hunting, trapping and tourism.
“(SJ 7) aims to recognize that wolves and grizzlies can register economic impacts on both sides of the ledger,” he said.
Phillips believes the bill is especially important with the push to place management of the bears under the state once delisted from the Endangered Species Act. Wolves and bears can and do kill livestock, which costs ranchers money, but they also hold value as living animals in terms of tourism.
“I promise they cause some economic hardship. I promise they create some economic benefit,” Phillips said. “Let’s see if we can come up with an expression of the total. I suspect that the study will help illustrate these animals have value as living breathing organisms.”
Rep. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, has introduced HB 291, which would create the voluntary wolf mitigation account. The bill would allow direct donations as well as those purchasing a conservation license to voluntarily donate to the account, with the funding to be used for wolf management. The funds would be specifically designated for contracts with USDA Wildlife Services for flight time, collaring and lethal control.
Beard brought a similar bill in 2017 that created a voluntary predator checkoff donation program. That bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.
This story has been changed to clarify the licenses affected by Rep. Bob Brown's bills.