The sponsor of a trio of bills expanding territory for wolf trapping and hound hunting for black bears said the legislation would better delineate areas where certain restrictions apply as he continues negotiations with state wildlife managers.
But opposition that included the governor and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks expressed concern that the bills could jeopardize efforts to delist grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act and erode the authority of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.
House bills 627, 628 and 630 brought by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, were heard during a marathon meeting of the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee on Thursday evening. The bills come in response to legislation Fielder carried in the 2021 session allowing snares for trapping wolves, lengthening wolf trapping seasons, and implementing a new black bear hound hunting season. Those bills were among the most contentious wildlife-related in the session and included hours of testimony both for and against.
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Fielder has been critical of how FWP and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission implemented those bills in regulations, saying they do not fully follow the Legislature’s intent. During the regulation setting process, the commission voted to hold a “floating” start date to wolf trapping season to avoid conflict with grizzly bears in areas “occupied” by the bruins. The commission also elected to prohibit using hounds to hunt black bears in areas in occupied zones. Due to the range of grizzlies, the restrictions cover much of western Montana, which also has the highest wolf and black bear densities in the state.
The 2023 bills as written would restrict the commission from implementing those restrictions outside of federally designated grizzly bear “recovery” zones, which are smaller areas than all territory occupied by grizzlies.
The bills are not about whether the practices will be allowed; that was decided by the 2021 legislation, Fielder told the committee.
“What I’m saying with these bills is within the grizzly bear recovery zones as identified and delineated by definition, we will not use snares for taking wolves when grizzly bears are active, when they’re not hibernating,” he said of HB 627. “That’s all this bill does. It doesn’t argue the use of snares, it doesn’t argue the right or wrong of it, it just delineates the area where we can use snares and where we can’t use snares.”
The bills saw support from trappers and hound hunters.
“I do support what Paul’s doing here, it did create confusion,” said trapper Tom Fieber. “We had some conflicts with Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the commission over the bill that was passed last time that brought this up. So this is just to clarify what’s there so we can get that conflict between the agency straightened out.”
Proponents argued that the bills would help in better managing predators, particularly in northwest Montana.
The bills saw opposition from wildlife groups that have typically opposed killing wolves and trapping.
Nick Gevock, representing the Endangered Species Coalition, said it is poor policy to put hunting or trapping seasons in law and pointed to a recent letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressing concern over the 2021 bills as it considers delisting grizzlies.
“This bill is bad public policy from a management and wildlife standpoint, it’s unneeded and it sets the state further back in managing other species including grizzly bears,” he said.
The bill also saw opposition from the administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte, citing similar concerns about commission authority and the governor’s priority of delisting bears across a swath of Montana. His natural resource policy advisory, Michael Freeman, told the committee that one of the factors in delisting is having adequate “regulatory mechanisms” in place to ensure continued persistence of the bears.
“The bill limits the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Commission to balance the provision of hunting opportunities with compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and federal law,” he said. “… The commission needs the ability to tailor and to customize the regulations that arise on a yearly basis, and they need the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.”
FWP deputy director Dustin Temple told the committee that grizzly recovery zones do not represent where all bears are, and that violation of the ESA should a grizzly be harmed occurs regardless of whether it is inside or outside recovery zones. The lack of conflicts with grizzly bears and trapping or hound hunting last year is an indication of the success of the commission’s regulations, he said.
Fielder encouraged the committee to advance the bills, saying he has been engaging FWP on potentially shrinking the map of current restrictions. Some new areas where expanded trapping and hound hunting could be allowed have been identified, he said, but those conversations have “ran out of time” with the approaching transmittal deadline next week. He would like to continue that process if the bill moves to the Senate, he said.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.