Local trappers weigh in on new wolf regulations

Sitting around the shop table, local trappers Bob Sheppard and Rob Henrekin discussed the expanded wolf hunting and trapping regulations approved by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission this past August. Changes implemented include raising the statewide quota to 450 wolves before review, increasing and removing regional quotas and doubling the total wolves allowed per hunter/trapper from five to 10. The Commission also extending the wolf trapping season and legalized neck snares, baiting and night hunting on private land.

Some believe that the new regulations will decimate the wolf population in an all-out slaughter calling it "aggressive" hunting measures. However, Sheppard and Henrekin do not think that is possible based on the intelligence of the wolf and harvest numbers in the past 10 years. Instead, they hope that the changes mean that the Commission and others now recognize the need to better manage wolves.

"Just because the Fish and Game relaxed some limits on the wolf harvest, quotas or methods, now we are faced with the [possibility of the] wolf being put back on the endangered species list because the state has an all-out 'war against wolves' is ridiculous," Henrekin said. "To me [wolves] are truly an amazing animal and I don't want to see them put on the endangered species list again. They still need to be managed responsibly and I think that is what the state is trying to do."

"The regulations will change it for some but in truth [those opposed to trapping] are making a big deal out of nothing," Sheppard said. "It will not make a major change in the wolf numbers. What will make a major change in the wolf numbers is starvation and disease."

History and quotas in Montana

In 2002, there were a minimum of 663 wolves and 43 breeding pairs in the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared that wolves reached biological recovery in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming after meeting the federal wolf recovery goal of 30 breeding pairs for three consecutive years.

The USFWS approved the Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan in 2004. In 2011, with a minimum wolf population of more than 1,600 wolves and 100 breeding pairs in the NRM, US Congress approved a law with a rider that revised the Endangered and Threatened Wildlife list by removing most wolves in the Northern Rockies. In May 2011 the USFWS published the final delisting rule.

When the hunting season opened Sept. 3, 2011 wolves were listed as "species in need of management" allowing them to be trapped.

"You can not manage them effectively without trapping them," said Sheppard adding poisoning, not hunting and trapping, was how wolves were pushed to extinction in the lower 48.

The Commission set a wolf quota of 220 in the 2011 hunting season and 166 wolves were harvested by 163 hunters from the 18,689 licenses sold.

Trapping for wolves opened in 2012-2013 allowing a bag limit of three for hunters and trappers with 18,889 licenses sold. There were 225 wolves harvested with only three trappers bagging their three-wolf limit and only two hunters getting two that season.

Over the past decade, the number of licenses sold reached its peak in 2013 with nearly 24,500 licenses sold and the bag limit increasing from three to five wolves. The harvest total in 2013 was 230 wolves with neither a hunter nor trapper taking their quota. On average from 2012-2020, less than one hunter annually has taken the bag limit and around two trappers per year have successfully taken their maximum.

FWP currently estimates there are 1,200 wolves in Montana. This year, the hunters are allowed to purchase 10 wolf licenses and the bag limit for trappers has been doubled from five to 10. There are quotas set for each Region that, when reached, could close the season early.

While Henrekin and Sheppard agree this could allow more wolves to be taken in a few areas, they pointed out very few people have gotten five each year and they don't think it will drastically affect the wolf population in this area.

Even though they both trapped as much as they could during the 75-day season last year, Henrekin only got one wolf and Sheppard never had a successful catch. Henrekin, who started trapping wolves in 2012, averages three a year and has only gotten five wolves once.

"I believe the reason I was able to get five that year was the fact that we had a decent amount of snow, keeping the game down lower," Henrekin said. "That pack had quite a few wolves in it that year. Also, they were more consistent in their travel patterns. And of course, luck."

"They get smart. They learn faster than any animal I've ever messed with," Sheppard said. "They keep learning and getting better and that is why they were so hard to eradicate in the beginning. All [these new regulations] will make a little difference and there will be more of it the first year than the second year."

The 2021-2022 trapping season was extended a month starting the Monday after Thanksgiving through March 15. While this may allow more wolves to be killed, Henrekin said there are access challenges in the early season because of the lack of snow. Sheppard added from a fur harvester's standpoint, in the first two weeks in December, their coat will still not be as full as mid-winter. And by March, the wolf's fur is starting to break down and they are shedding so their coat is not worth as much.


Neck snares, thin loops of wire designed to snag around the throat, were not legal for wolves in Montana until Governor Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 224 into law this spring. Opposition to the bill centered on neck snares' lethality and the frequency with which snares capture and kill other animals. 

FWP reported in 2018 that when legal coyote snares caught non-target animals, the by-catch died 73% of the time. Foothold traps resulted in the captured animal's death 24% of the time. Many pet owners also expressed concern that expanded snare use will lead to more dog deaths because snares are designed to kill a captured animal within minutes.

In August, the Commission legalized wolf snaring on public and private land during the trapping season.

Sheppard said snaring has been legal for 40 years.

"They are a really good tool for wildlife management in a variety of ways, not just on predators," Sheppard said. "From a fur trapper's standpoint, they are a super device."

However, Sheppard has some concerns with the wolf snaring regulations.

The biggest problem Sheppard sees is the 1,000-pound breakaway. The idea of the breakaway is if an elk, moose or cow is caught, they will be able to pull hard enough to break the snare and be released instead of being a by-catch.

"You are looking at something that could have some serious consequences for livestock and wildlife," Sheppard said explaining Alaskan and Canadian trappers use 600-800-pound breakaways.

Even though snares are not allowed in Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones, the loop size for wolves matches grizzly bears very well. Sheppard said with the 1,000-pound breakaway, a grizzly bear might not be able to apply enough pressure to breakaway before the snare becomes fatal.

The relaxing snare lock required for Lynx Protection Zones is another issue for Sheppard.

"Wolves are pretty heavy furred around the neck so snares have to work pretty effectively anyway with their full winter hair to kill them quickly," Sheppard said. "A wolf can bite through that cable just as clean as cable cutters if he has the opportunity. If the snare relaxes, he will have the opportunity, will sever the cable and all you would be doing is educating the wolf."

According to the new regulations, a non-target capture of one lynx or grizzly bear shall initiate a Commission review with potential for rapid in-season adjustments to trapping regulations.

"When the smoke clears, we are not even going to have coyote snares because they'll say because a snare is a snare, is a snare," Sheppard said. "Or there would be so many regulations attached that it is no longer a viable harvest tool. That is the bad part."

With wolf snares starting at $4 each, compared to a foothold trap starting at $50 and the ability to carry several in a backpack, this reduces the time and money required to get into trapping. Sheppard said he is concerned that people will indiscriminately set them because their passion is simply "to kill wolves and not give a crap what happens on the other end."

"That is the scary part for folks like Rob and me that are trappers," Sheppard had. "We are doing it and value the resource - not just to kill wolves."

Baiting and night hunting

According to the new regulations, the use of bait for hunting and trapping wolves is permitted statewide and night hunting is permitted on private lands.

Sheppard said baiting for wolves is complex with varying success – it depends on the size of the bait, where the bait is located and how baiting is addressed with snaring.

"In my opinion, large baits are only effective really quick because wolves will wise up to that," Sheppard said.

Sheppard said when baiting was legalized in Idaho, they flew in big baits in the Selway-Bitterroot. They hammered the wolves one time. But after that, their catch rate per visit decreased and the visits decreased exponentially "because the wolf is not a stupid animal."

Excluding the wolf's intelligence and ability to learn, Sheppard and Henrekin pointed out several other issues with bait. Large baits of multiple carcasses or one large carcass bring in a lot of different animals including mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls and eagles and can be noticed by the public. It is illegal to have a large bait on Forest Service land because it is considered littering.

Henrekin thinks the novelty of baiting will wear off quickly. While maybe hunters will be able to pick off wolves as they come into the bait, the majority of the wolves will come in at night. While night hunting is allowed on private land, unless a hunter has a $4,000 night vision scope it will be a tough shot. Henrekin does not think those opportunities are available to many people.


In order to combat these concerns, Sheppard and Henrekin both agree that education for both trappers and non-trappers is essential. Having the knowledge of the wolf, its habitats and some of their idiosyncrasies, is not only going to improve a trapper's chances of harvest but also will increase the odds of not having a bad experience.

Sheppard is currently the chair of the Montana Trappers Association Education Committee. While a person must attend and complete a wolf trapping certification class before setting a trap and snaring is part of that, snaring wolves is not currently included.

"With wolf snaring, you are dealing with a specific animal and an important animal because it is iconic to a lot of people so you want to do it right," Sheppard said. "They are big, powerful, extremely intelligent, they learn very quick, they get more difficult with every encounter with humans."

While Sheppard said the Montana Trappers Association fought for a wolf snaring course requirement prior to the season opener this year, they were told the legislative intent did not allow them to hold up implementation this year and it would be added as a required for the 2022-2023 season.

"I disagree with that. They claimed that lawfully and legally they couldn't," Sheppard said. "But from past performance, they could have put a hold on it just to meet the education requirements."

Educating the general public that trapping occurs statewide and may be occurring in an area, is a useful management tool that can gain acceptance.

"The more you know about something, the less you fear it," Sheppard said. "People fear the unknown. If they learn about this stuff, even if they are not a trapper, they can be more comfortable."

In October 2020, the USFWS released their decision to delist the Rocky Mountain gray wolf nationally. While met with legal opposition from wildlife advocates and conservation groups aimed to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves, on Aug. 20, attorneys for the Biden Administration moved to dismiss a lawsuit. They upheld the Trump Administration's decision to delist gray wolves based on the rationale that gray wolves are recovered and therefore must be managed by the state and tribes.

However, after review of two petitions filed to list gray wolves in the western U.S., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that gray wolves in the western U.S. may warrant listing and are conducting an in-depth status review.

"The petitioners present substantial information that potential increases in human-caused mortality may pose a threat to the gray wolf," the Service wrote in a press release dated Sept. 15. "The Service also finds that new regulatory mechanisms in Idaho and Montana may be inadequate to address this threat."

Following the status review that is expected to conclude next summer, the Service will determine if the listing is warranted. If so, listing a species is done through a separate rulemaking process, with public notice and comment.

To comment on the in-depth status review visit http://www.regulations.gov, Docket Number: FWS-HQ-ES-2021-0106.

"All of the regulations are going to be new and a change," Henrekin said regarding the upcoming season. "There will be some, limited success from every one of the changes, which might have a cumulative effect that, could cause some stir. Personally, I don't think so."


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