MISSOULA — Private landowners may kill up to 100 wolves a year they believe are threatening livestock, dogs or people under a new state law that doesn’t count toward Montana’s wolf-hunting season.
But Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners opted to monitor those landowner killings in blocks of 25 instead of an earlier plan to allow 50 kills before review. The decision came during the commission’s meeting in Missoula on Thursday.
The landowner quota is separate from the state’s annual wolf hunt. Hunters must have a wolf license and operate during an annual season, while landowners or their agents can kill wolves “that are a potential threat to human safety, livestock or domestic dogs” at any time of year. That option comes from Senate Bill 200, passed in the last Legislature.
Landowners may also kill wolves in the act of attacking livestock without affecting the 100-animal quota.
But they can only use that privilege on private land — not on public-land grazing allotments. And while landowners may allow private hunters to kill threatening wolves on their property under the quota, the landowner (not the hunter) would be responsible for any illegal wolf kill.
So, for example, if a rancher told elk hunters on his land they had his permission to shoot wolves near his cattle, they could do so under the landowner quota without using their hunting licenses. But if a hunter killed a wolf after the quota was exceeded or somewhere that the wolf posed no believable threat, the landowner could be liable for the violation.
On Thursday, the commissioners also set rules for the 2014-15 wolf hunting season, which remained generally the same as last year. The coming rifle season will run from Sept. 15 to March 15, with a bag limit of five wolves per hunter. Two hunting districts near Yellowstone National Park have quotas of three wolves, to protect packs popular with wildlife watchers in the park.
Hunters have no quota on wolves except in those areas close to Yellowstone and Glacier National parks. Last year, hunters killed 128 wolves while trappers took another 97.
Landowners have killed far fewer wolves under previous shoot-on-sight rules for livestock protection. FWP wildlife manager Quentin Kujula said the past several years averaged less than 10.
“Landowners want the opportunity to deal with the situation themselves,” FWP director Jeff Hagener said after the unanimous approval of the quota. “They don’t want to wait for compensation for wolf depredation or for (federal) Wildlife Services to arrive. This way, they don’t have additional costs, and we the taxpayers don’t have additional costs.”
That prompted commissioners Matthew Tourtlotte and Gary Wolfe to amend the landowner rule. The original version required commission review after the first 50 wolves were killed. Tourtlotte and Wolfe proposed making checks in 25-kill blocks.
“I’m really concerned about a perception there’s open season on wolves on private land in Montana,” Wolfe said. “This is to give landowners the ability to address legitimate perceived threats, not to create an open season on private land. It’s easier to become more liberal than try and back off in the future.”
Commission chairman Dan Vermillion said estimates of the state’s wolf population show it has been able to absorb the impact of no-quota hunting seasons. Montana has around 600 wolves.
“I think this is the kind of program that helps foster more tolerance for wolves on the landscape,” Vermillion said.
When wolves were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, Montanans felt powerless to deal with the predators’ impact, and that fostered intolerance for their presence, he argued.