By PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic
HAMILTON – The Ravalli County Commission could adopt the state’s first county government-created predator policy this Thursday.
But Ravalli County’s largest sportsmen’s organization hopes the commission will hear it out before they make a decision.
Last week, members of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association voiced their displeasure that the county appeared to be moving forward on a controversial policy that asks for dramatic changes in the way predators are managed without reaching out to the group.
“We are the oldest sportsmen’s group in the state and we’ve been in this wolf battle since the very beginning,” said the association’s president, Tony Jones. “They never got any input from us on this policy.”
On Friday, the commission set a meeting with the group for Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 9 a.m.
Jones said he has put together a packet of information on state big-game laws and regulations the association believes the commission needs to understand before moving forward with its predator policy.
“We appreciate and understand what it is they are trying to do, but the direction they took with their draft policy was all wrong in our opinion,” Jones said. “Some of the things they are asking for are illegal. There are state laws against things like baiting bear.”
“How much credibility does a draft have when a county agency asks a state agency to do something that is clearly illegal?” he said. “We believe they need to learn the state’s policy, learn their procedures and then work within those. If you want to be effective, you have to learn to work within those procedures.”
“It took us a while to learn that too,” Jones said. “We tried to circumvent their procedures and it just ended in some major wheel spinning. The quicker they learn that, the better off they will be.”
Commission Chair Matt Kanenwisher said the commission understands that some of the policy’s suggestions are currently beyond the statutory authority of state wildlife managers.
Kanenwisher said he views the proposed policy as the beginning of a conversation that the county hopes will lead to better management of predators.
“It’s simply a way to give a voice to the people of the Ravalli County,” he said.
The proposed policy has the support of some sportsmen’s organizations in the county, including Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Western Montana Chapter of the Safari Club.
Safari Club chapter president Jon Wemple said his organization had ample time to offer input to the proposal.
“We applaud the commission for taking a proactive stand,” Wemple said. “We’ve had a significant impact on our elk herds in Ravalli County due to the influx of wolves.”
Even if all the policy’s proposals are not adopted, Wemple said the policy does bring awareness to the issue and provides the potential of adding additional resources to control predator numbers.
The county’s draft predator policy calls for removing the quota on wolves, allowing hunters and trappers to harvest up to five wolves a year, and allowing hunters to use their elk or deer tags to shoot a wolf during the general season.
It also addresses mountain lion and black bear season.
Most controversial is allowing hunters to use bait to hunt bears, which is currently illegal under state law and would require a legislative change.
The commission has made clear that it doesn’t propose to supersede the state in managing wildlife.
Keith Kubista of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife said his organization believes that something needs to be done soon to preserve ungulates in Ravalli County.
“After sitting through the recent FWP meetings, it appears the outlook doesn’t look good for recovering herds of moose, elk and deer in the near future,” Kubista said. “We would like to see something happen sooner instead of later.”
Kubista said his group was content with its ability to offer input into the process of developing the county’s predator policy.
“We’re very hopeful that the commission can produce a policy that allows us to work with the state and federal government to get wolves and other predator numbers under control,” he said.
FWP Regional Supervisor Mack Long said the department will take a look at whatever it is the county produces.
“Their thoughts are important to us,” Long said. “We’ll listen to them.”
The state is in the process of completing its biannual season setting process. Long said wildlife managers heard concerns about predators in at meetings and in written comments from Ravalli County sportsmen.
The state is proposing some changes to the mountain lion season. Early results from a large-scale elk/predator study in the southern Bitterroot suggest that mountain lions are playing a large role in predation on elk calves in the area.
“We hear a lot from the public and they hear a lot from the public,” Long said.
The state has an established process it uses to establish seasons and regulations.
“The old adage about making sausage in a lot of cases like this are true,” Long said. “We have to weave in biology and social aspects with the laws that we’re required to abide by.”
The answers aren’t always as easy as they seem.
The department has heard a lot of people asking about the potential of allowing trapping as another tool to control wolves. While the state will consider that proposal for next year, Long said it’s unclear what impacts trapping might have on mountain lion hunters and their dogs.
“We try to look at the total package when we start opening up the tool box,” he said. “There are a ton of things that are in the pipeline.”
Meanwhile, Long said a recent monitoring flight found that there are four wolf packs remaining in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.
“They are still around and they are a lot more elusive than what they had been,” he said.
One hunter told Long of following wolf tracks on snowmobile. When the hunters thought they were close, they left the machines and went ahead on foot.
When the hunters returned, they found the wolves had circled back and come within 50 to 75 yards of their parked snowmobiles.
“They never saw them or heard them,” Long said. “They are learning that they need to be a little more careful if they want to survive.”