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Commission undermines professional and ethical wildlife management

| October 3, 2021 1:00 AM

As former members of the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission, we generally refrain from criticizing decisions made by our successors. However, the current Commission’s recent actions regarding the new wolf trapping and hunting regulations are so egregious that we must speak out. For the record, we all are avid deer and elk hunters, and we believe wolves play an important ecological role on the landscape.

We recognize that the anti-wolf legislation passed during the 2021 Montana legislative session — specifically HB 224, HB 225, and SB 314 — put the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and the Commission in a difficult position — they had to develop regulations to implement biologically unjustified and unethical wolf hunting and trapping laws. FWP staff developed three options for the Commission to consider that would meet the intent of the new laws. The options took a graduated approach ranging from “limited” to “maximum” application of the legislatively mandated “management tools.”

The “limited” option provided the Commission an opportunity to comply with the legislative mandates while minimizing the negative impacts to the wildlife resource, sporting ethics, FWP credibility and public opinion. Instead, at the Aug. 20 Commission meeting, Commission Vice Chair Pat Tabor introduced a proposal which included a different combination of actions than recommended by FWP. We want to thank Commissioner Pat Byorth for his bold and ethical objections to the draconian proposal introduced by Commissioner Tabor. We also appreciate that Commissioner K.C. Walsh voted against the proposal. Unfortunately, it was approved by a 3-2 vote, in spite of overwhelming public opposition.

Although the Republican-controlled Legislature passed several anti-wolf bills and Gov. Gianforte signed them into law, the regulations adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Commission were more extreme than required to meet the letter of the law.

The new regulations allow:

• the use of snares for trapping wolves on both public and private lands;

• night hunting of wolves on private lands with the use of artificial lights, thermal imaging technology, or night vision scopes;

•and the use of baits (defined as the meat or viscera of a mammal, bird or fish) for the hunting and trapping of wolves.

The regulations also:

•extend the length of the wolf trapping season;

•increase the harvest limit from 5 to 10 wolves per person;

•and eliminate quotas (the total number of wolves that can be harvested in a specific wolf management unit) in the two small WMUs bordering Yellowstone National Park to the north, and in one WMU bordering Glacier National Park.

Adoption of these regressive regulations reflects poorly upon the Commission, FWP and the state of Montana. Not only are the new regulations not justified biologically, they run counter to generally accepted principles of fair chase and hunting ethics, undermine broader public support for the delisting of endangered species such as grizzly bears and wolves, and add to the negative perceptions many members of the non-hunting public hold for recreational trapping and hunting.

Coincidentally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced its intent to initiate a “status review of gray wolf in the Western U.S.” According to their Sept. 15 press release:

“The Service finds the petitioners present substantial information that potential increases in human-caused mortality may pose a threat to the gray wolf in the western U.S. The Service also finds that new regulatory mechanisms in Idaho and Montana may be inadequate to address this threat. Therefore, the Service finds that gray wolves in the western U.S. may warrant listing.”

Ironically, in their zealous stampede to kill wolves by any means possible, the Legislature and governor put state control of wolf management directly in the crosshairs. Their short-sighted efforts almost guarantee relisting of wolves and loss of state directed wildlife management.

The irresponsible actions of the Legislature, the governor and the Fish & Wildlife Commission are destroying FWP’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional state wildlife agencies in the country, are undermining Montana’s past conservation achievements, and jeopardizing FWP’s credibility and ability to manage Montana’s wildlife resources in a responsible and ethical manner. Montana deserves better!

Tim Aldrich, former District 1 Commissioner (2017–2020); Logan Brower, former District 4 Commissioner (2017 – 2020); Shane Colton, former District 5 Commissioner (2005–2013, 2017–2020) and former Commission Chair Steve Doherty, former District 3 Commissioner (2004–2008) and former Commission Chair; Matt Tourtlotte, former District 5 Commissioner (2013–2017); Dan Vermillion, former District 2 Commissioner (2007–2019) and former Commission Chair; Gary J. Wolfe, former District 1 Commissioner (2013–2017)