Montana lawmakers debated this week whether a reimbursement program for wolf trappers constituted a “bounty” on the animals.
The Senate Fish and Game Committee took up a trio of bills Thursday aimed at dealing with problem wolves and reducing the number of the animals in the state. The bills include a reduced price for wolf licenses, a donation program for collaring and lethal removal of wolves, and allowing reimbursement to successful wolf trappers.
The bills previously passed the House.
While all the bills drew proponents and opponents, House Bill 279, the trapper reimbursement bill, brought by Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, saw the strongest debate with opponents contending it creates a bounty program on wolves.
Brown told the committee the bill came from hunter concerns in northwestern Montana about deer and elk populations. He brought multiple bills this session targeting expanded wolf hunting and trapping, including a bill to allow wolf hunting at night that failed to pass the House.
The bill drew some confusion in the House over whether it would direct public funds to wolf trappers, Brown said. What the bill would allow is similar to a program in Idaho in which a group called the Foundation for Wildlife Management privately pays wolf trappers a portion of their expenses for each wolf taken.
The foundation says it has removed more than 400 wolves in Idaho, spending more than $225,000.
Testifying in favor of the bill was foundation Director Justin Webb, saying the program is funded by ranchers and sportsmen groups targeting areas that have seen declines in deer and elk populations. It provides private dollars to fund trappers at a fraction of lethal control programs run by USDA Wildlife Services, he said.
“Although bounties are used by numerous state agencies, the foundation is not a bounty program,” Webb told the committee.
Webb said the reimbursements are differentiated from bounties on several fronts. The funds are based on actual expense receipts and management of the animals remains under state regulations, not an unregulated take with cash prizes.
Webb said the foundation, “would be excited to work with and support (Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks) in the same way,” where wolves are causing management issues.
The bill saw additional support from livestock interests, the Montana Trappers Association and Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
Opponents repeatedly characterized the legislation a bounty bill and outside the bounds of fair chase. The bill amends the section of code dealing with programs such as big buck contests rather than management, they noted, and pointed out that state officials are trying to reduce elk numbers in many parts of Montana. Would a bill reimbursing elk hunters be next if HB 279 passes, they asked.
“Wolves are being used as a scapegoat here, this is no reason to toss out Montana hunting ethics,” said Derek Goldman with the Endangered Species Coalition.
HB 279 saw additional opposition from Montana Audubon, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Wolves of the Rockies, Trap Free Montana Public Lands and others.
Under questioning from the committee, Quentin Kujala with FWP testified that reimbursement programs are allowed under current law; however, any reimbursement must be tied to effort rather than success.
“We do understand that current statute allows a service contract if the agreement is all about effort,” he said. “In this context, if you have a depredation issue and bring in (a trapper) … and compensation is not tied to success, we think existing statute allows that already.”
Responding to a question from Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, Kujala told the committee FWP did not see a regulatory mechanism in the bill to provide oversight of the reimbursement payments, such as verifying receipts.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bills.