Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists prepare to transport a tranquilized grizzly that wandered into a shop on the Birch Creek Hutterite Colony near Dupuyer in 2018. Credit: Montana FWP

Three proposals that seek to change how bears and wolves are managed in Montana passed out of the Legislature Wednesday on largely Republican support. The bills headed to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk in the coming weeks illustrate a deep divide between how Republican and Democratic lawmakers think about managing predators in the state.

During hearings on the proposals, Republicans frequently argued that additional tools are needed to effectively manage the state’s largest carnivores, while Democrats said that tack is misguided at best and unethical at worst.

Biologists say there’s a fair bit at stake, both for animal populations — not just predators, but prey, too — and the management of species like grizzly bears, which has been controversial since they received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act  in 1975.

BLACK BEAR HOUND-HUNTING 

The Senate voted 28-22 Wednesday to pass House Bill 468, which would allow hunters to pursue black bears with hounds and create a chase season from the end of spring bear season through June 15. That measure is sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, and was carried in the Senate by Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, who said he’s seen some changes in wildlife populations at his property on the East Rosebud Creek that worry him.

“When we first brought that property … there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of whitetail deer. Over the last seven, eight years we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the whitetail population, and, interestingly enough, a dramatic increase in the black bear population,” he said. “This bill helps to balance that out.”

During debate on the bill Tuesday, Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, urged his colleagues not to pass the measure. He said his view was informed by a conversation with an old friend, “a houndsman’s houndsman” who said it would spell trouble for cubs, and out of concern that it would delay delisting of grizzly bears.

“[If] you want to delist grizzly bears, you don’t run the cubs to the ground and kill them with dogs,” he said. “The feds will take a very dim view of that. It is extremely emotional. They’ll put it on TV, and they will kill the issue.”

When the measure went up for third reading the following day, Molnar was joined by all Democrats and two Republicans in voting against the proposal, but it nonetheless passed by a comfortable margin, 28-22.

WOLVES: LIFTING TAG LIMITS, ALLOWING NIGHT HUNTING AND BAIT 

A proposal sponsored by Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, that would lift bag limits on the number of wolves a hunter can harvest and allow for the hunting of wolves with bait and during the nighttime on private land also passed out of the Legislature Wednesday. Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, carried Senate Bill 314 in the House, arguing that he knows ranchers who are reluctant to graze cattle in certain areas due to concern about wolf predation.

Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said she understands that the wolf population is high in some parts of the state and believes they need to be managed, but she took issue with some of the proposals presented in the bill.

“To be blunt, it legalizes some unethical hunting practices, and making those things legal doesn’t necessarily make them ethical,” she said. “Night hunting and hunting over bait — those are things that have not been part of Montana’s fair chase legacy, and [they’re] unsportsmanlike, to say the least.”

After passing through the House 62-35 on Wednesday, SB 314 should arrive on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk soon.

Senate Bill 267, also by Brown, passed the Legislature March 26 and was transmitted to the governor earlier this week. It would allow for “the reimbursement for receipts of costs incurred related to the hunting or trapping of wolves.” Proponents say it will help hunters concerned about ungulate populations and ranchers worried about livestock losses. Opponents say it will create a bounty on wolves and is reminiscent of a dark period of wildlife management that nearly resulted in the extirpation of wolves. Brown sponsored a similar bill in 2019 that was limited to trapping, but not hunting, expenses. It passed one chamber before stalling in the other.

GRIZZLY BEAR RELOCATION 

Another predator measure that passed Wednesday hones in on how and where managers relocate problem grizzly bears. 

Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Mike Lang, R-Malta, would prevent Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife managers from relocating problem grizzlies outside of zones already approved by the state’s governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission. It passed Wednesday 66-31 with unanimous GOP support and unanimous opposition from House Democrats.

Opponents say it has the potential to strain or damage the relationship between federal and state wildlife managers, and that it could create new issues by consolidating problem bears into limited areas.

“You’re going to have more problems because you’re stuffing one bear on top of another with a limited amount of resources for that bear to survive on,” Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, said during debate Tuesday.

In a March email to Montana Free Press about a bill in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines and four other Republican senators, that seeks to delist grizzly bears, Chris Servheen, who was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ grizzly bear recovery coordinator from 1981 to 2016, said measures like SB 337 will “preclude adequate mortality management mechanisms that must be in place in order to delist grizzly bears.”

Servheen said SB 337 will prohibit state authorities from relocating any grizzly in any type of conflict anywhere outside of the recovery zones in the Greater Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems. That’s concerning, he said, because 15 to 30% of the grizzlies in Montana are outside recovery zones during at least part of their lives. 

“Preventing relocations by state authorities is a violation of the current grizzly bear special rule that redirects how grizzly bears will be managed, a violation of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Guidelines that Montana has been party to for 40 years, and will result in more dead grizzlies,” he said.

GIANFORTE AND PREDATOR MANAGEMENT 

What Gianforte might do with these measures remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that he’s already signed into law House Bill 225, which adds four weeks to the existing trapping season, and House Bill 224, which allows the use of neck snares on wolves. HB 224 appears to be one of the most controversial predator measures lawmakers have taken up, judging by the amount of public feedback it’s generated in the Legislative Services database: 1,151 comments, with 850 of those registering opposition to the bill.

“Gov. Gianforte wants to provide Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission with additional tools for wolf management in the state,” Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said in a statement about his signing of HB 224 and 225. “Wolf populations must be managed in order to achieve objectives laid out in law and policy, along with every other species under state jurisdiction. Providing the commission with additional authorities supports the continuing efforts to manage [wolves] and to balance the concerns of communities across the state.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has voiced support for the grizzly relocation measure, but did not take a position on the black bear hound hunting proposal or Brown’s wolf management bill.

This story was updated April 19, 2021, to correct the period of a black bear chase season that would be created by HB 468.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.