BILLINGS – Despite laws enacted by the Legislature two years ago to increase wolf kills in Montana, the state’s wolf harvest dropped for the second year in a row.
“Accessibility was a huge limiting factor this year,” said Chris Morgan, western vice-president for the Montana Trappers Association. “Most areas that hold wolves saw significant snowfall the first week of November and it only kept coming. It’s nearly impossible to keep sets consistently working well in the type of winter we had.”
A total of 258 animals were killed this season. That’s down from last year’s 273, which was below the highest on record of 329 taken in the 2020-21 season. This year’s kill rate was also the lowest in the past five years – the two previous seasons saw kills of 295 and 293, respectively.
Much like this winter, trappers cited difficult trapping conditions last year as a factor in the decline. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks data also shows less trapping took place last year compared to the record year. In the winter of 2020-2021, data showed about 4,300 trapper days in northwest Montana’s Region 1, which has the highest wolf densities. In 2021-22, that dropped to a little less than 1,800 trapper days, which accounts for each day a trapper is trapping. Data is not yet available for the season that just concluded.
The statewide quota for wolf hunting and trapping was set at 450. The season closed on March 15. Going into this season, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimated the state’s wolf population at about 1,100 animals.
The last Legislature passed, and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved, actions to reduce wolf populations by allowing snares, higher limits, hunting wolves at night on private land, longer trapping seasons, the use of bait and payments for killing the big canines.
The changes drew fire from wolf advocates, especially after 21 wolves from Yellowstone National Park were killed under increased quotas last year. Previously, the area around Yellowstone had a limited quota of two wolves a season to protect animals that tourists from around the world travel to see.
Following criticism over the Yellowstone wolf deaths, and at the request of the National Park Service, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to lower the harvest just north of the park to six animals this season. All six were killed. The season in that wolf management unit was closed on Feb. 7 after the quota was reached.
Of the six wolves killed in Wolf Management Unit 313 north of Yellowstone, four were males and two were females and three were collared. Four of the animals were known to park biologists, including: 1325M, a 2.5-year-old male from the 8 Mile pack; 1229F, a 3.5-year-old female from the Junction Butte pack; 1278M, a 2.5-year-old male from the Rescue Creek pack, along with another uncollared male from the Rescue Creek pack.
As of December, Yellowstone officials estimated there were 108 wolves in 10 packs in the park, including seven breeding pairs.
Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, said the reduction in Yellowstone wolves killed this season is a good start, but wolf advocates would like to see it reduced even more. His group would also like to see the statewide quota dropped. Cooke speculated the decline in hunter and trapper kills is reflective of a smaller wolf population than FWP is calculating.
“This is all about killing wolves and throwing science to the bathroom,” he said.
Last year environmental groups sued FWP – Cooke’s group was not among the litigants – alleging the state’s wolf management plan was outdated and the method used to estimate populations was inaccurate and implemented without public participation. A judge temporarily halted some new regulations, but later allowed the season to proceed.
Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Gianforte ordered FWP to draft a new wolf management plan, a process expected to last through this year.
Elsewhere, trapping districts 1 and 2 in northwestern Montana each saw 91 wolves killed – the most in the state. The quotas the state Fish and Wildlife Commission set for the districts were 195 and 116, respectively.
Trapping district 3, in southwest Montana, saw 52 wolves killed out of a quota of 82. District 4, which covers the north-central portion of the state ranging as far east as Petroleum County, up to the Canadian border and west to the Rocky Mountain Front, saw 15 wolves killed out of a quota of 39. District 5, in south-central Montana and including the Beartooth Front, saw a harvest of three wolves out of a quota of 11. No wolf kills were reported in Eastern Montana’s two districts.
Brian Wakeling, FWP’s Game Management Bureau chief, said there’s a lot of speculation about why this year’s harvest dropped once again, but he couldn’t provide any specific insights other than trapping license sales had fallen and it was a particularly harsh winter.
The wolf hunting season opened on Sept. 15. The wolf trapping season started on Nov. 28, except in areas with grizzly bears where trapping opens on a floating date, only opening once grizzlies go into hibernation. Some districts did not open until Dec. 24 this year.
Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, and other trappers have expressed heartburn over the floating start date. Fielder carried a 2021 bill to expand the trapping season for wolves, which previously opened on a fixed date of Dec. 15. The floating date, which has resulted in later openings for some areas, has cost trappers important time in the early season when winter travel may be more feasible, critics have said.
“So we actually with that legislation, we lost two weeks of trapping season there,” Fielder said on the House floor earlier this session in support of his House Bill 628 that would curtail where the floating date could be used. “That was not the intent of the bill. The intent of the bill was to allow a longer trapping season at the front and the back of the season so that we were able to reduce the wolf population during optimum trapping periods when there wasn’t as much snow, there wasn’t as much freezing temperatures, it wasn’t in the dead of winter.”
Fielder introduced HB 628 and a similar bill, HB 627 dealing with snares, this session to narrow where the Fish and Wildlife Commission could curtail expanded seasons and trapping methods. Fielder’s bills aimed to limit restrictions to federally designated grizzly recovery zones, which are smaller than the commission’s limits which focused on “occupied territory.” Both bill were ultimately voted down after opposition from Gianforte raised concerns about conflicts with attempts to delist grizzlies.
Trappers maintain, however, that the risk of conflicts with grizzlies is minimal.
“In a perfect world, opening trapping season in mid-November would help fill quotas, but with grizzly delisting on the horizon we won’t see that any time due to the perceived notions that grizzlies could be caught in traps,” said Morgan, of the Montana Trappers Association.
Tom Kuglin, deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, contributed to this story.