Members of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission may have broken a state law involving public participation at meetings when the group voted on Monday to prohibit wolf hunting and trapping in two areas north of Yellowstone National Park.
Wolf hunting and trapping was listed on the FWP Commission agenda as an “informational” update on the wolf harvest. The cover sheet explaining the topic stated that no action was needed, but that the review will include “data on harvest numbers, geographic distribution of harvest, consideration of depredation removals, and overall wolf mortality relative to wolf population model projections.”
The topic was on the agenda following a July FWP meeting, in which the commission finalized regulations for this year’s hunting and trapping season. At the July meeting, the commission directed FWP staff to provide a review of the wolf harvest after the end of the regular deer and elk season.
As George Pauley, the FWP wildlife management chief, ended his presentation on the harvest update, he noted that eight wolves with radio collars had migrated outside of Yellowstone National Park into Montana and Wyoming and were killed by hunters.
“We realize the loss of radio collars has impacts to Yellowstone National Park research objectives, but we also have elk management reasons for hunters to remove more wolves. So we don’t see any need for changes,” Pauley told the commission.
Still, Commission Chairman Bob Ream said he believed they should modify two Wolf Management Units to protect some of the wolves migrating into Montana out of the Park, and made a motion to do that. The commission had been approached by the wolf advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies asking for some type of modification.
“I think this is a reasonable and compromised approach that’s warranted at this time,” Ream said.
That prompted Commissioner Ron Moody to say that while he agreed with the motion and appreciated the attempt by the pro-wolf group to “find an accord they can live with in accordance with the hunting folks,” he questioned the process.
“We told the public it was an informational briefing,” Moody said. “It’s not good public relations.”
Ream responded that when they set the seasons in July, they informed the public that they would be reassessing it.
“But that was in July and today’s agenda said this would be informational,” Moody countered.
Commissioner Shane Colton sided with Ream, noting that he was quoted in a newspaper story last week saying that closing some areas to trapping or setting strict quotas would be on the table during Monday’s commission meeting.
“I look at this from the standpoint that when something is going to interfere with our Montana management of wolves, that’s when the commission needs to get involved,” Colton said. “The loss of this many collared wolves during hunting season doesn’t bode well for the trapping season; trapping is in-discriminate in whether they’re taking collared wolves or not.”
Unlike the July meeting, when more than 7,000 people from throughout the nation sent written comments on proposed wolf hunting and trapping regulations and more than two hours of testimony was taken from sportsmen’s groups, ranchers, trappers and wolf advocates, only 15 people testified at Monday’s hearing, with just four in opposition to the closures.
“The process is a darn hard thing to follow by the general public,” said Keith Kubista with Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
Roland Deane, chairman of the Montana State Houndsmen Association, added that he was only aware of the possible change in regulations “after a couple guys in the Paradise Valley got wind of closing it down.”
Both men opposed changing the regulation.
Of the 11 who testified in favor of the change, some mentioned how both the New York Times and the BBC have done stories about wolves that come out of Yellowstone are being shot.
On Thursday, Helena attorney Kim Wilson said that while some of the commissioners believed adequate public notice was given, it wasn’t, in his opinion.
Montana statute 2-3-103 provides that a state agency “may not take action on any matter discussed unless specific notice of that matter is included on an agenda.”
“Maybe this was something the commission was thinking it already had done in the initial decision and thought they needed to make a quick decision,” Wilson said. “But with the high level of public interest, they should have made the public aware they would vote on whether there would be changes to the season.”
The measure passed 4-1, with Commissioner Dan Vermillion saying he didn’t think the change was necessary.
Members of the public who want to challenge the process must file a legal protest within 30 days of the meeting. If a court finds a violation, it may void the action that was taken.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron