Montana Senate Republicans approved two bills Monday aimed at increasing the hunting and trapping of wolves.
The Senate voted along nearly party lines with Republican support and Democratic opposition to advance Senate Bill 267 and Senate Bill 314 from Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls. SB 267 would allow reimbursement payments to wolf hunters or trappers who successfully harvest a wolf. SB 314 directs Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider more aggressive actions in an effort to bring down wolf populations in some areas of the state.
SB 267 has been characterized as a “bounty bill” by critics for allowing payment directly for the taking of a wolf.
Brown said on the Senate Floor on Monday that the bill did not use public funds or make changes to regulations or bag limits, but would allow sportsmen’s organizations to pay for the expenses of wolf trappers and hunters.
When the bill passed committee last week, the Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management testified in support. The nonprofit uses privately raised funds to pay successful wolf trappers from $500 to $1,000 based on where the animal is harvested in that state.
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, spoke in opposition to the bill.
“This is in essence a private bounty bill,” he said.
Flowers was critical of what he saw as a lack of oversight in the bill, arguing that it placed no limits on what a wolf hunter or trapper could be paid for some expenses such as mileage.
Brown defended the bill, saying payments could only reflects receipts for expenses and noted the expense that comes with trapping wolves.
SB 314 directs the state to set hunting and trapping seasons with the intent of reducing populations to a “sustainable” level, but not below 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs. The state does not have a target for the number of wolves as a population objective — biologists believe about 1,200 wolves are in Montana — but the state’s wolf conservation strategy mentions a minimum of 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs as the federal delisting threshold.
SB 314 says the commission may use the most liberal regulations in regions with the greatest numbers of wolves, and could consider unlimited harvest by individual trappers or hunters, use of bait for hunting and private land hunting of wolves at night using artificial light or night vision scopes.
Brown said Monday that he decided against bringing a bill that would reclassify wolves as a “predator” in Montana, meaning they could be killed all year and without limits. He made the decision based on concerns such a reclassification could land wolves back on the endangered species list.
SB 314’s provisions that continue to vest management decisions with the wildlife commission do no force action, he said.
“There are areas that are beginning to have too many wolves and areas where there aren’t that many wolves and this could help us start to see a more well-rounded population around the state,” Brown said.
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, was critical of the bill, saying she believed it treated wolves like predators and purported to drive the animals down to minimal levels.
“I think this takes us right back to getting them listed,” she said.
Brown again defended the bill, saying he believed the state would manage populations at higher numbers than the minimum and that the more aggressive means of taking wolves mentioned in the bill are suggestions but not mandates.
Both SB 267 passed with a vote of 30-20 and SB 314 passed 29-20 to pass to the House
Supporters of several bills aimed at increasing wolf harvest have pointed to a significant drop in elk hunter success in northwest Montana as evidence that wolves are having major impacts on populations there. While hunter success has declined, FWP elk population counts have remained at objective for many units. Due to variability in animal populations from other factors such as weather, biologists have not drawn a definitive link to wolves.