Ranchers seek bounty hunters to cut wolf numbers

HELENA, Mont. — Southwestern Montana livestock owners fed up with rising wolf numbers say the state’s efforts to reduce the predator population have fallen short and they want to give bounty hunters a shot.

Faced with such grumblings after news this week that the Montana wolf population is still growing, Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are holding a meeting Wednesday to discuss what additional measures can be taken to kill more wolves.

But frustrated Ravalli County commissioners and livestock owners are way ahead of them. The county commission is holding a vote Monday on a proposed wolf policy that calls for a big hunting quota increase. And a petition circulating among ranchers there asks county commissioners to impose a fee on county livestock that would pay for wolf bounties.

A full-grown wolf carcass would bring $100. A wolf pup would be worth $20.

Organizers say they don’t know whether money will work as an incentive — Montana’s recently ended wolf hunt netted just 75 percent of the quota of 220 animals — but something must be done because the state’s wolf management policy isn’t working.

“Predation in our county is out of control and Fish, Wildlife and Parks is in denial,” said Darby rancher Scott Boulanger. “Their management and predator protection philosophies have driven us to the point where we are now.”

FWP had aimed to reduce Montana’s wolf population to 425 animals with the first hunting season since Congress lifted endangered species protections for wolves last May. But only 165 wolves were killed in the hunt that ended mid-February.

That shortfall, combined with few wolves killed last year by wildlife officials responding to livestock predation complaints, resulted in a population count of at least 653 wolves at the end of 2011, which is 87 more wolves than were counted in 2010, according to an FWP report released this week.

The southwestern part of Ravalli County near the Idaho line has been a focal point in the wolf debate. That portion of the Bitterroot Valley, where hunters bitterly speak of great declines in elk herds, had a quota of 18 wolves, but only six were shot.

That was despite extended season and incentives such as a rifle raffled off to a name drawn from those who successfully bagged a wolf in December.

Ranchers and hunters are calling on the state to do more. FWP director Joe Maurier said the agency is committed to getting hunters more involved in wolf management, so the agency has invited county commissioners from across the state to the Wednesday meeting.

Marc Cooke, a Stevensville resident and a member of the advocacy group the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, said he is concerned the result could be a big policy shift on how wolves are hunted.

“We are encouraged the numbers are up but it scares the daylight out of us,” Cook said. “What they’re politely saying is that ‘We’re going to start looking into baiting, we’re going to start looking into trapping.’ How is that ethical?”

FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said no option will be off the table for discussion, but no proposals will be forwarded to the commission until May. Even then, the commission will be limited on what action it can take.

“We can discuss them all, but some may take legislation,” Aasheim said.

The FWP commission can extend the hunting season, adjust the quotas or start a hunter education program to discuss how to kill wolves more effectively. But other matters, such as changes in licensing and allowing trapping, would take an act of the state Legislature, Aasheim said.

As for the bounty system, FWP attorneys have concluded that bounties are legal if the hunter is licensed and follows state law, Aasheim said.

Boulanger said the process for establishing bounties is clearly laid out in state law. Organizers will gather as many signatures as they can before Aug. 1, and then turn it in to Ravalli County commissioners.

State law calls for at least 51 percent of livestock owners in the county to sign for the petition to be approved. Boulanger said he does not know how many signatures he needs to reach that goal.

Ravalli County can’t implement its own wolf policy if it goes against state law, so the commissioners’ Monday vote on the proposed policy will amount to a resolution for the state agency to consider incorporating into its wildlife management plan, Ravalli County Commission chairman Matt Kanenwisher said.

The final version calls for as big a quota increase as possible without decreasing the health of the wolf population, but Kanenwisher said the bigger message the county wants to send is that wolf management must be tailored for specific counties’ needs.

Kanenwisher plans to attend the FWP meeting and he said he hopes that the state agency takes his and other counties’ recommendations seriously.

“I think FWP would like to give the county commissioners an opportunity to vent, and I think the hope is that would satisfy the desire of other counties to be involved,” he said. “Simply venting does not satisfy Ravalli County’s desire to be involved.

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