Committee votes on four wolf bills as legislative deadline nears
March 8, 2023
The House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee considers snares, trapping dates, reimbursement and hunting near national parks. The House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee voted on four wolf-related measures Feb. 28 ahead of a key legislative deadline.
The committee narrowly approved two bills that would codify wolf trapping season dates and trappers’ ability to use neck snares in state law. The committee also tabled two wildlife advocate-backed measures related to a controversial hunter and trapper reimbursement program and the hunting and trapping of wolves near national parks.
Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, sponsored the two measures that give explicit wolf trapping directives to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, the governor-appointed body charged with setting hunting and fishing regulations and seasons.
House Bill 627 specifies that wolf trapping regulations “must” allow the use of snares, a particularly lethal form of wolf trapping the Legislature legalized in 2021, in all parts of the state except grizzly recovery zones and lynx protection zones.
Both animals are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission has modified trapping regulations in western Montana to reduce the likelihood of their unintentional capture in a wolf trap or snare.
House Bill 628 also gives the commission a clear mandate. Current Montana law reads that the commission “may” authorize a wolf trapping season and gives the commission leeway to adjust start and end dates based on regional recommendations. HB 628 would weaken that discretion by dictating that the commission “shall” authorize a trapping season to run from the Monday after Thanksgiving through March 15. As with HB 627, there’s a carveout for grizzly recovery zones.
Those measures build off of two wolf trapping bills Fielder successfully carried during the 2021 legislative session. Both bills — now laws — were cited by environmental groups in an October lawsuit seeking a reversal of the state’s wolf hunting and trapping regulations on the grounds that they violate Montana’s public trust doctrine of wildlife management. Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott has not yet issued a final order on that lawsuit.
During the Feb. 23 hearing on HB 627 and 628, Fielder said his bills “delineate” the areas and dates where snares and traps can be used.
Opponents countered that the bills amount to “legislative micromanagement” of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and are politically rather than scientifically motivated. Gov. Greg Gianforte’s natural resources policy adviser, Michael Freeman, opposed HB 627, arguing that removing the commission’s season-setting flexibility could jeopardize Gianforte’s push to delist Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Yellowstone-area grizzly populations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to issue a decision on the state’s petition to delist grizzlies sometime in 2024.
Three Republicans on the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee joined all the committee’s Democrats in opposing HB 627 and HB 628 on Feb. 28. Both measures squeaked by on a 10-9 vote.
The committee also heard and voted on two Democrat-sponsored bills that seek to undo a wolf hunter and trapper reimbursement program passed in 2021 and strike a piece of Montana law regarding the hunting and trapping of wolves near national parks.
House Bill 765 sponsor Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said she’s trying to correct an “egregious” wrong created by the last Legislature. Supporters of 2021’s Senate Bill 267 might call it a reimbursement program, she said, but that’s not how it reads to her.
“This program pays people upon presentation of a dead body, and that’s simply a bounty,” she said.
Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning, sponsored House Bill 779, which sought to strike a piece of Montana code prohibiting the Fish and Wildlife Commission from closing areas immediately adjacent to national parks to wolf hunting and trapping.
Both HB 765 and HB 779 were tabled before the committee could vote on a “do pass” motion to decide whether they should advance to the full House.
The votes on all four measures come as a critical legislative deadline nears.
Fielder’s proposals are positioned to advance to the House floor for a vote before the session’s midpoint transmittal deadline, while the Peregoy and Weatherwax bills will likely die in process.