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MT: FWP, county commissioners talk about wolves, other predators

By EVE BYRON Independent Record

Montana is going to be much more aggressive in hunting wolves in upcoming seasons, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier, while also looking at different ways to manage other large carnivores.

Speaking during a FWP Commission work session to a room filled with county commissioners and hunting and trapping advocates, Maurier said some wolf management ideas coming out of his department may need statutory changes by the 2013 Legislature. Still he hopes to liberalize the season in a variety of ways.

“My message, right off the bat, is that we are going to be much more aggressive in our proposals this hunting season; not just because it’s what people want but because of what we’re seeing out in the field,” Maurier said. “It’s very clear that harvesting wolves will be a challenge for us.”

Options include allowing wolf trapping, the taking of more than one wolf per person, approving the use of electronic calls, reducing the price of non-resident wolf hunting licenses from $350 to $50 and lengthening the season. FWP also is looking at removing quotas as well as wolf management units, so wolves could be hunted across the state throughout the season.

Maurier said he wants to work in conjunction with county representatives to try to formulate a package to introduce on the first day of the 2013 legislative session in January so that the modifications could still be used before the wolf season ends on Feb. 15.

That came as welcome news to county commissioners in attendance, including those from Ravalli and Jefferson counties, where they’re considering instituting wolf bounties. County commissioners are concerned that the burgeoning wolf population — which increased from a minimum of 566 wolves in 2010 to 653 at the end of 2011, even with 166 removed by hunters — has precipitously dropped elk and deer populations in some areas. They fear along with destroying human hunting opportunities, it’s also impacting local economies.

“The things we wanted done are all the things mentioned today … and that’s encouraging,” said Ravalli County Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher. On Monday, the Ravalli County commission approved its own wolf policy. “What’s not disputed in Ravalli County is our elk herds have suffered quite a cost. What is disputed is the way to resolve that.”

But Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said he’s still concerned that FWP is trying to maintain a high wolf population in order to keep them from being protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We’re talking about bounties because the ranch people are about at the boiling point,” Wortman said. “They don’t feel like FWP is necessarily being honest with them all the time … but I appreciate the problems you have. We are getting a policy developed and will ask for coordination with FWP. I look forward to those discussions.”

Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said his county is also considering developing a predator policy.

“We’ve very concerned about the decreasing big game population and how it’s affecting our economy,” Skinner said. “Gallatin County is prepared to doing something similar to Ravalli County, not to oppose FWP but to help you work hand-in-hand to find solutions.”

Commissioners added that the Montana Association of Counties recently discussed putting together a group to work with FWP on the issue.

Ben Lamb, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, reminded the crowd that it’s not just wolves that are preying on big game. Mountain lions, black bears and grizzlies all have taken a toll, but so have humans based in part on the way the Legislature mandates how FWP operates in certain areas.

“Throughout this discussion there have been two things absent — that is habitat conditions right now on the ground for elk and legislative mandates to manage elk at or below population objectives,” Lamb said. “If we are serious about growing our elk and bringing some herds back, we need to repeal the law or amend it so the department can act, not react all the time.

“It’s not just the four-legged toothy predators but also the two-legged sharpshooting predators that concern me.”

Others noted that habitat encroachment by humans, as well as climate change, disease and the recent 10-year drought also have impacted big game herds.

Ken McDonald, FWP wildlife division chief, said the department is well aware that it’s not just wolves that are causing big game population decreases in some areas, and that it’s taking steps to try to turn that around.

He noted that FWP recently completed a 10-year mountain lion study in the Garnet range and is considering ways to apply those results. One of the key items gleaned from the study is that while FWP manages elk or deer on a watershed level, lions cross those boundaries and live more on a landscape level.

“Maybe we ought to manage them on a different scale,” McDonald said, adding that in recent years, FWP has increased lion quotes.

McDonald said the agency has done an intensive black bear study, which shows that increasing the harvest level hasn’t impacted their populations significantly, so they extended the hunting season and allowed archers to take them.

“We took out 1,400 black bears this year; in 2007 that was 700,” McDonald said.

FWP also is working with the federal government to try to attain authority to manage grizzly bears, whose population is growing.

In addition, it has undertaken a number of elk studies to look into the predator/prey relationship, McDonald added.

FWP commissioners said they were pleased with the discussion, and hopes it will continue.

“We’re blessed in Montana in a way; in northwest Montana we have the most complex predator/ prey system in northwest America,” FWP Commissioner Bob Ream said. “… There’s no other place like that in North America, so it makes the job more

difficult. But I’m glad to hear a number of you talk about predators rather than the hysteria over wolves.”