Many people in northwest Montana harbor strong feelings about gray wolves.
Some see the predators as evil incarnate. Others embrace wolves as powerful symbols of wildness and a contributor to the balance of nature.
Now, officials with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) are proposing boosting opportunities to hunt or trap wolves in Region 1 — comprising the northwest corner of Montana — by expanding related seasons and doubling the number of wolves a hunter or trapper can kill.
On Feb. 13, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the following proposals from Region 1 staff:
• Increase the individual kill limit from five to 10 wolves per person.
• Expand the general hunting season so that it begins Aug. 15 and ends March 31. The general season currently begins Sept. 15 and ends March 15.
• Extend the trapping season, which begins Dec. 15, to March 15. It currently ends Feb. 28.
Region 1 staff will ask the commission to allow public comment about the proposed changes through March 16. The commission could take that approach or decide to adopt the changes at its Feb. 13 meeting.
FWP staff from Region 1 collected public comment about gray wolves during four meetings this winter. The agency’s best estimate suggests there are about 300 to 350 wolves in northwest Montana.
Dillon Tabish, a Region 1 spokesman, said more research is underway to try to establish a more accurate count but results won’t be available until later this year.
“Regardless of the outcome of the research project, it is safe to say that Region 1 has some of the highest wolf densities in Montana,” Tabish said.
Some public comment received this winter blamed wolves, rightly or wrongly, for a lack of success among some elk hunters. Tabish said this feedback did influence FWP’s proposals.
“Elk distribution has changed in many areas and although the reason for that change may be multifaceted — habitat changes, hunter pressure, predation — wolves are part of that change,” he said.
“Wolves certainly prey on elk, just as other predators — lions and bears — do,” Tabish added. “If we look at research in the Bitterroot and in northern Idaho, predation on elk calves is predominantly mountain lions, followed by wolves and bears.
“Certainly, some of our sportsmen believe that wolves are the root of the issue,” Tabish said. “Biologically, the question is more complicated, but wolves are part of the equation.”
If the commission adopts the proposals, a hunter with multiple wolf tags could, hypothetically at least, kill several wolves in one outing.
“As long as a hunter has multiple licenses with them at the time of harvest, they can fill those tags at the same time,” Tabish said.
When the 2018-19 wolf season closed in March 2019, the harvest of wolves totaled 295, with 166 taken by hunters and 129 by trappers. It was a record harvest, with most of the increase due to higher trapping success, primarily in Regions 1 and 2.
The state estimates there are about 819 wolves in Montana.
Neil Anderson, wildlife manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 1, referenced wolf numbers in Region 1 in a news release.
“We heard from a substantial number of people attending the public meetings throughout northwest Montana who requested additional opportunity for wolves,” Anderson said. “Biologically, we have the wolf population to sustain additional harvest opportunity and wanted to be responsive to public input and participation.”
Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said Feb. 6 that the nonprofit was planning to comment on the proposals but had not yet finalized its input. The federation supports fair chase wolf hunting as a management tool, Gevock said.
Montana sold 14,921 resident wolf licenses and 2,082 non-resident wolf licenses for the 2918-19 season. License sales generated $387,599 for wolf management and monitoring in Montana.