HELENA, Mont. — State wildlife officials asked lawmakers Thursday to make it easier to hunt and trap wolves in Montana, while a Bozeman legislator backed off a proposal to cap the population at 250 of the predators.
A legislative panel took up the proposals by Fish Wildlife and Parks and state Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, as the wolf debate took the spotlight in the first week of the 2013 legislative session.
The House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee did not take immediate action on either bill.
Ranchers and hunters have called for an expansion of hunting and more liberal rules after 166 wolves were killed out of the 220-animal quota set for 2011, resulting in a population increase to at least 653 wolves.
They say lowering the number of wolves will mean a reduction in livestock and big-game losses to the predators.
FWP agency officials responded by making the 2012 season longer, eliminating most quotas and allowing trapping for the first time.
The agency is now asking for additional measures in House Bill 73 that can only be accomplished by changing state law. The proposal would let hunters and trappers buy multiple tags and use electronic wolf calls, reduce the price of a non-resident tag from $350 to $50 and eliminate the requirement that hunters wear fluorescent orange outside of elk and deer season.
“Our goal is to aggressively manage the wolf population while keeping management under state authority,” FWP wildlife chief Ken McDonald said.
The House committee also took up Washburn’s bill, which calls for many of the same changes as the FWP bill. But Washburn’s plan also would set a limit of no more than 250 wolves in the state.
Congress lifted federal protections of wolves in Montana and Idaho in 2011, handing management over to those states. Montana now must keep at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs within its borders to maintain state authority over the predators.
McDonald said setting a 250-wolf maximum could trigger a review of the state’s management plan. It also would require precise and expensive management and expose the state to possible lawsuits if the number of wolves went over or under the limits, he said.
Several other representatives of hunters and ranchers also expressed concerns about the proposed cap.
Washburn later said he planned several changes to the bill, including striking the population cap and instead proposing a 350-wolf population target.
“It’s a target objective, no longer is it mandatory,” he said.
Washburn’s proposal also would put into law several matters now decided by the FWP and its commission, including dates for a hunting season and the maximum number of tags to be issued. McDonald also objected to that, saying it would reduce the agency’s flexibility in managing the predators.
FWP officials and Washburn have met on the differences between the two bills in what FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim described as a positive dialogue.
So far this season, hunters have killed 102 wolves and trappers, 38. That is fewer killed by rifle or arrow compared with last year at this time, but the addition of trapping makes it likely the total number of wolves taken this season will exceed last year.
The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, which oversees the state agency, also met Thursday and agreed to reconsider an earlier decision to close down hunting and trapping of wolves north of Yellowstone National Park. They will take it up again on Jan. 29.
The move came after several collared wolves from the park were killed, but was blocked by a restraining order from a state judge after critics raised concerns that insufficient public notice was given.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Attorney Rebecca Jakes Dockter said the state still intends to ask for the restraining order to be lifted at a Monday hearing in Livingston.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings contributed to this report.