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MT: Committee grills wildlife commission nominees on wolf hunting, lead ammunition

Two of four appointees proposed by Gov. Steve Bullock for the Fish and Wildlife Commission would support considering reduction of wolf hunting near Yellowstone National Park and removing lead from hunting ammunition and fishing sinkers.

Current Commissioner Richard Stuker, of Chinook, and nominee Greg Tollefson, of Missoula, faced the Senate Fish and Game Committee during a hearing on Senate Resolution 64 on Thursday in Helena. The two other proposed appointees, returning Commissioner Matt Tourtlotte of Billings and Logan Brower of Scobey, were not present.

The two nominees’ absence drew a rebuke from Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, who then questioned Tollefson and Stuker about the wolf and ammo issues.

Stuker, who drew praise from several proponents speaking on his behalf, said he believed “anything we put in the environment shouldn’t harm it,” including lead ammunition. As a rancher, he said he doesn’t like wolves on the landscape but noted that the state is required to manage them by law. To that end, he said current law that allows the killing of wolves that predate on livestock are adequate without the additional hunter harvest near Yellowstone. He also conceded that there has been an industry built up around wolf-watching in the park that deserves consideration.

“All species are important in one way or another,” he said, adding that he supports grizzly delisting so that the state can manage the species.

Tollefson — who grew up in Billings, wrote an outdoors column for the Missoulian and worked for a land trust — said he already shoots copper rifle bullets and nontoxic shot for birds. Tollefson said he would have to listen carefully to FWP biologists’ recommendations on wolf hunting.

“I know wolf management is a continuing challenge,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the concerns about those wolves.”

When questioned by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, about whether they had ever purchased a wolf hunting license, both nominees said no. Vincent pressed Tollefson to describe any policy issues that the Fish and Wildlife Commission has dealt with that he would have experience considering.

“I have no axe to grind,” Tollefson said, noting that he has long been a user of the state’s resources and has a broad general knowledge of many issues. “I’m here to study hard and make the best decisions I can.”

When asked about the tension between landowners and hunters in the state, Stuker said he thinks conflict between the two groups is getting worse.

“I firmly believe if the individuals in those groups would sit down and have an honest discussion” that their disagreements could be resolved, Stuker said. But he also added that some sportsmen are negligent, citing one year that his land had many gates left open during hunting season. “I believe sportsmen need to police themselves properly.”

Tollefson said landowner relations are at the top of his list and that promotion of a sense of respect and civility is key to many issues.

When asked about a proposal to restrict motorized boats on some stretches of river, known as the Quiet Waters initiative, Stuker said he at first supported more study of the issue but after attending a few meetings and talking to an FWP warden, he believes it’s a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. The commission will consider the initiative at its May 4 meeting.

“Unless I hear something different, I have to take those (opponents) into large consideration,” Stuker said. “I do feel if we have 80 percent or more — or anywhere near that figure — opposed we really need to look at what people are saying.”

Tourtlotte is a Billings attorney and Brower is a teacher and athletic director in Scobey. Brower’s appointment would be good through 2019 as he fills out the rest of Richard Kerstein’s term. The other terms would run through 2021. The only commissioner whose position is not up for consideration this legislative session is chairman Dan Vermillion, of Livingston. There are five commissioners representing the different regions of the state.

The Legislature is taking an Easter recess, but the committee will take up the nominees in executive action next week. Senate Fish and Game Committee chairman Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, apologized for the lateness of the hearing but said it was “the best we could do” given the lateness of the appointments.