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Heavy wolf harvest triggers new limits near Yellowstone

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted last week to close wolf trapping and hunting in southwestern Montana if or when six more wolves are harvested in the region.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that 20 wolves that roamed out of Yellowstone National Park have been killed this season, the most in any single hunting season since wolf reintroduction in 1995. Park employees have since deemed one pack, the Phantom Lake Pack, "eliminated," according to the story, which re-ignited wildlife advocates' frustration about the state's approach to wolf management and inspired a coalition of western environmental organizations to petition Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to issue emergency federal protections for wolves. Haaland has thus far declined to implement such a measure.

When it was setting dates for the 2021-2022 rifle-hunting and trapping seasons last year, the commission set a harvest threshold for each of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' seven regions that would trigger a regulation review with potential for "rapid in-season adjustments." In Region Three, which covers southwestern Montana, the commission set that threshold at 82 wolves.

As of Friday afternoon, hunters and trappers have harvested 76 wolves in Region Three, with more than six weeks left before the trapping season's scheduled close on March 15.

The commission discussed several options at the Friday meeting, including closing the season in the two wolf management units closest to the park, closing Region Three to wolf harvest effective immediately, and directing FWP to close the season on wolf hunting and trapping when 82 wolves have been harvested. The latter motion passed unanimously after the commission heard 30 minutes of public comment on the proposal.

About 15 people spoke in favor of scaling back wolf hunting and trapping in Region Three specifically or the state more generally. Many expressed concern about high harvest rates in areas close to Yellowstone National Park, where the canines are off-limits to hunters and trappers, and emphasized the animals ecological and economic benefits. With the possible exception of one illegible testimony offered at the start of the meeting, which was streamed online, no commenter called for the wolf hunting season's continuation.

Speaking on behalf of the nonprofit Montana Wildlife Federation, Chris Servheen said the 2021-2022 wolf regulations established by the commission last year "lacked any biological justification" and requested that the commission reinstate its previous system of allowing for the harvest of one wolf from each of the two units closest to Yellowstone National Park. 

"The ongoing killing of wolves along Yellowstone National Park will continue to embarrass Montana and increase the momentum to relist wolves [as an endangered species]," he said.

Cary McGary, founder of Gardiner's In Our Nature Guiding Services, expressed frustration that nearly 30% of the national park's wolf population has been killed since the start of the 2021-2022 hunting season and emphasized wolves' economic value to people living and working in and near the park.

"We have a disproportionately high wolf killing where these animals have the most value alive," she told the commission. "These animals are the most viewable wolves in the Lower 48, if not the world. Their economic value cannot be overestimated."

Bozeman resident Phil Knight urged commissioners to consider wolves' ecological benefit as a limitation on the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, which has been expanding its reach across Montana to the detriment of cervids like deer, elk and moose.

Many commenters' names were likely familiar to both FWP and the commission, as wolf management has been the subject of voluminous and often heated public comment before and after the Legislature passed three bills last year aimed at aggressively reducing the state's wolf population by expanding the trapping season, legalizing neck snares, and allowing for the use of bait and spotlights by hunters pursuing wolves on private land. 

Wolf management has also found its way into the judicial system and spurred the federal government's involvement. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, decided to review whether the management of wolves in states including Montana and Idaho has imperiled the species'' recovery. The agency is expected to issue a decision about the merits of relisting early this summer.

In December, the groups Trap Free Montana Public Lands and Wolves of the Rockies sued FWP and the commission over 2021-2022 wolf hunting regulations allowing for aerial hunting of wolves and the use of artificial light or night-vision scopes when hunting wolves on private land. The groups argue that the proper process was not followed in allowing the use of such tools because the commission did not debate them before FWP included them in its 2021-2022 wolf-hunting regulations. The organizations say the lack of debate thwarted public participation in violation of Montana law. 

They've asked Lewis and Clark County District Court to issue a temporary restraining order to disallow those tools while the issue is in litigation. Wolves of the Rockies Executive Director Marc Cooke told Montana Free Press that the court has not yet ruled on the request, and said he anticipates the state will submit its response to the lawsuit early next week. 

Concerns about unintentional snare or trap captures of grizzly bears and Canada lynx, which are federally protected, prompted the commission to decide in October to take trapping and snaring off the table within Lynx Protection Zones, which include parts of northwestern and southwestern Montana. The commission also pushed back the start date of trapping season for parts of the state that fall within the Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone on the theory that unintentional capture of the animals is less likely if trapping season starts after grizzlies have entered their dens for the winter.

If either lynx or grizzlies are captured in a trap or snare set for a wolf, the commission will be required to revisit its regulations.

In addition to setting regional wolf-harvest thresholds, the commission last year established a statewide quota that would trigger regulation review. As of Friday afternoon, 184 wolves have been harvested this season in Montana, according to FWP's wolf quota dashboard - about 40% of the review-triggering quota of 450 wolves.

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