By EVE BYRON Helena Independent Record
HELENA – State wildlife managers want to substantially liberalize the 2012-13 wolf-hunting season in another attempt to decrease pack numbers in Montana.
Trapping wolves, allowing the taking of up to three wolves, using electronic calls, lengthening the hunt and eliminating quotas are among the proposals to be introduced at Thursday’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting.
FWP officials say they hope the changes will eventually lower the number of wolves in Montana from the minimum known population of 653 to 425.
Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman, said the department realizes that the proposals are controversial and will be hotly debated before the commission makes a final decision at its July 12 meeting in Helena.
That’s why the agency will hold five meetings throughout the state to take public comment. They’ll begin accepting comment at Thursday’s meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Montana Wild Center at 2668 Broadwater in Helena; the comment period ends at 5 p.m. June 18.
“This is one of those issues where there are lots of different opinions,” Aasheim said. “We’ll hear what the commission thinks, then what the public thinks, and go from there.”
This will be the third wolf-hunting season in Montana; trapping was not allowed in the earlier hunts. In documents supporting the changes, FWP notes that it believes the proposed framework will increase opportunities for hunters and trappers while furthering the state’s understanding of how best to manage the species.
The department adds that despite extending the season closure to Feb. 15 this year, it still didn’t meet the quota of 220 wolves; only 166 were killed.
FWP notes that its models show that taking up to 377 wolves wouldn’t drop the population below the short-term goal of 425.
“It is clear that a more aggressive wolf-hunting season will not hurt wolf populations or genetic diversity,” FWP stated in its documents. “FWP has carefully considered the need to implement wolf harvest and management in light of uncertainty. There are many sources of uncertainty, including the fact that wolves do not have a long history (only two years) of being hunted in Montana and wolves have no recent history of being trapped on a broad scale.
“Further, Montana does not yet have long management history with harvest to draw upon to predict participation, hunter success, trapper success, wounding loss, spatial distribution of harvest, wolf vulnerability to harvest and wolf management as a piece of a larger whole.”
Some of the proposals, like using electronic calls and raising the bag limit to three wolves, need legislative approval. FWP officials have said they’ll put together proposals prior to the 2013 session, so they can get changes passed and implemented as soon as possible.
Increasing the bag limit of wolves hunters and trappers can take is only expected to moderately increase kill levels, FWP notes. During the 2011-12 wolf season in Idaho, only 20 percent of successful wolf hunters and trappers killed more than one wolf and only 8 percent took more than two wolves.
Having a general season instead of using quotas in individual wolf management units is expected to make it easier for people to take a wolf, Aasheim said. He added that people who kill wolves are required to report it within 24 hours, so if it appears that too many are being taken out of a wolf management unit that particular area can be closed to hunting or trapping.
“A general season – especially for a wide-ranging species that routinely crosses public and private land ownership – typically results in most harvest occurring where the targeted species are most abundant,” FWP wrote in the supporting document. “Conversely, a general season does not preclude harvest efforts in specific areas where local reductions are advocated.”
Harvest quotas will be in place in wolf management units near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks to address concerns over potentially high harvests near their boundaries.
Baits, scents and dogs still won’t be allowed when hunting wolves.
The proposed wolf season dates would remain similar to the 2011-12 framework, but with a later closing date. The wolf archery season would extend from Sept. 1 through the close of the elk archery season. In most wolf management units, the general wolf season would run from Oct. 15 through Feb. 28.
However, in three units, the general wolf season would open earlier, on Sept. 15, to coincide with the early opening of the backcountry elk season.
The proposed trapping season would run from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28 to minimize the chance of accidentally trapping bears. Only leg hold traps would be allowed – no conibears or snares – and trappers must visually check traps every 48 hours. Any trapped wolf that’s not going to be released must also be shot immediately.
If a wolf trapper incidentally catches a wolf beyond the legal limit and the animal is uninjured, the trapper must contact FWP within 12 hours to potentially have the wolf fitted with a radio collar and released to assist FWP in management efforts.
The state agency makes it clear that it’s basing some of the proposed trapping regulations on Idaho’s experience during the 2011-12 season. FWP notes that as of the end of April, Idaho wolf hunters killed 254 wolves while trappers took 124.
“Thus, the addition of trapping increased the total Idaho harvest by about 50 percent,” FWP stated in documents. “In addition, the level of harvest in Idaho provides some insight into the potential impact of elevated harvest levels. Despite a harvest of 378 thus far during the 2011-12 season, the minimum wolf population in Idaho increased from 705 during 2010 to 745 in 2011.
“Some of the increases could apparently be attributed to increased monitoring effort and certainly, differences exist between the Montana and Idaho wolf populations. However, given the ability of wolf populations to compensate for harvest and given that total abundance exceeds the minimum year-end count potentially to a large extent, it is likely that the Montana wolf population could absorb substantial, additional harvest.”