HELENA, Mont. — Responding to frustration over the inability to reduce the wolf population through last winter's hunt, Montana wildlife officials gave tentative approval Thursday to loosening some restrictions on hunters and to allowing trapping of the predators for the first time.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission vote puts the proposal out for comment until June 25, giving the public a chance to weigh in on the plan to eliminate most quotas, expand the season to Feb. 28 and allow trapping. The agency will also ask state legislators to rewrite laws to increase the number of wolves a hunter can kill from one to three and to allow the use of electronic calls.
Last winter in Montana, hunters killed 166 wolves out of a 220-animal quota. The population rose in 2011 by 15 percent to at least 653 wolves, angering ranchers and hunters who want the state to impose stricter management practices.
Montana's goal for the coming hunt is to reduce the wolf population to 425 animals, said Quentin Kujala, management bureau chief for FWP's wildlife division. The agency's models conclude that killing 377 wolves this year would cut their numbers to below 500, though FWP does not plan to set a statewide quota this year.
In expanding the hunt, Montana regulators would be taking a page from their neighbors to the west, where Idaho wolf managers estimate the wolf population has dropped from more than 1,000 animals in August to between 500 and 600 in March. Hunters and trappers accounted for nearly 364 of those wolves killed, and wildlife officials there have agreed to increase bag limits, expand trapping and extend hunting seasons.
Montana and Idaho started holding public hunts to manage their wolf populations after Congress lifted federal protections for the species in May 2011. Wyoming has set a quota of 52 wolves for its first wolf hunt this fall, pending federal approval of the state's management plan.
The difficulty in reaching last winter's quota suggests that the hunt can be greatly expanded by eliminating quotas in most areas without threatening the species, Kujala said. Quotas would remain in one district bordering Yellowstone National Park and another bordering Glacier National Park.
Montana's previous two hunts included an archery and a rifle season. Expanding that to include trapping is necessary to reduce the wolf population, Kujala said.
Under the proposal, trappers would be allowed to take one wolf, and they would have to check their traps every 48 hours. Snaring, which uses a noose to capture an animal around the neck or body, would be barred.
Trappers would not be required to have a trappers' license, just a wolf license.
The commission kicked off the public-comment period with a hearing that lasted nearly four hours, during which more than 60 people spoke before a standing-room only crowd in Helena and through feeds from regional offices across the state.
The ranchers, hunters and politicians who spoke in favor of the proposal — or demanded the commission loosen the restrictions even further — outnumbered opponents at a rate of about 2-to-1. Supporters said the measures were needed to protect livestock and prevent big-game species numbers from dwindling, and they urged the agency to take further steps, such as allowing snaring.
"Trapping is an integral part of Montana's heritage," said Charlie Johnson, a hunter who spoke to the commission from FWP's Missoula office.
Republican state Rep. Ted Washburn said lawmakers may take the agency's proposals further to boost the number of wolves that a single hunter or trapper can kill from one to five and reduce the price of an out-of-state license wolf license from $350 to $100.
The Legislature convenes in January, meaning whatever changes lawmakers pass are likely to come at the very end of the hunting season, if at all.
Animal-rights advocates said the expansion of hunting is unnecessary because verified complaints of wolves preying on livestock are down even though the wolf population has risen. Wildlife tourism business owners also spoke against the proposal, saying wolves are a major tourism draw and reducing their numbers would hurt the state's economy.
Opponents focused on trapping, calling the practice cruel and inhumane. Anja Heister, executive director of the anti-trapping organization Footloose Montana, asked the commission how FWP plans to enforce the 48-hour trap checks and how it plans to keep trappers from using bait.
Commissioners did not respond to the questions.
Blackfeet tribal member James St. Goddard spoke passionately about how it is wrong to put livestock above an indigenous species such as the wolf.
"He's been the protector for 4,000 years of the Blackfeet people. Now you guys want to kill him again. That's wrong," St. Goddard said.
Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said those arguing against the plan have no financial stake in the matter, whereas the livestock owners who do are just "being hammered by wolves."
"I don't think it costs them any dollars out of their pocket," Wortman said of the plan's opponents.