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The geographic and temporal sweep of Montana’s wolf trapping and snaring regulations shrank Thursday when the state Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a measure that brings those regulations into alignment with legal settlements governing management of grizzly bears and Canada lynx, two federally protected species that share habitat with wolves.

Wolf trapping areas that overlap with grizzly habitat will now have a default season start date of Dec. 31, when grizzly bears will be in their dens. The commission also approved a regulation change that shrinks the area where trappers can set neck snares in an attempt to limit adverse impacts to Canada lynx. The changes are intended to prevent the accidental capture of grizzly bears and lynx in leg-hold traps and neck snares, which would work counter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to help those species recover.

Under the approved regulation changes, trappers cannot set snares within the Lynx Protection Zones set out in this map.

“This proposed date change would initiate wolf trapping and snaring after grizzly bears are in winter dens and unlikely to be captured in a wolf trap or snare,” the department wrote in a cover letter about the proposal. FWP staff also recommended an expansion of Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones to “incorporate more of the current grizzly bear distribution and remove confusion associated with grizzly bear recovery zone boundaries.”

The Dec. 31 start date for trapping in grizzly recovery zones isn’t set in stone, though. If FWP staff conclude that grizzly bears have entered their dens for the winter, the department has the option to push the start date forward to as early as Nov. 29, a call the agency has the flexibility to make on a unit-by-unit basis. FWP Chief of Staff Quentin Kujala said weather conditions, food availability, observation of bears or their sign and radio collar data could be used to inform those decisions.

The revisions to wolf trapping regulations also prohibit snaring on public land within the state’s two Lynx Protection Zones, which were established in 2015 as part of a lawsuit settlement between conservation groups and FWP. One of those zones stretches east along Highway 191, which links Bozeman and Big Sky, into the Beartooth Mountains of south-central Montana. The other covers an area from the far northwestern corner of the state south to Missoula, and into Lewis and Clark County.

More than 20 people spoke in support of the revised regulations. Many of them pushed for additional measures to protect lynx and grizzly bears, describing the proposed changes as a step in the right direction that doesn’t go far enough. Environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, and the Endangered Species Coalition said a hard start date of Dec. 31 within Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones would be better than the floating start date proposed.

“We urge you to limit the season to firm dates of Dec. 31 to Feb. 28. That will account for grizzly bears going into their dens late and coming out early as a result of climate change,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Andrea Zaccardi, who added that flexible dates could create confusion about when wolf trapping can legally begin in grizzly habitat.

As currently described, the wolf-trapping season ends March 15. The commission didn’t entertain an adjustment to the closing date at the Oct. 28 meeting, citing a requirement that it provide public notice of measures to be voted on.

Several commenters also asked the commission to apply the regulation revisions to private land within the grizzly and lynx protection zones.

“Wildlife do not abide by our protection zoning. We can’t fence them in or force them into a den and lock it,” said KC York with Trap Free Montana. “Snaring should only be permitted on private land [outside] the Lynx Protection Zone.”

Under the new regulations approved by the FIsh and Wildlife Commission on Oct. 27, the wolf trapping season won’t start until Dec. 31 in the highlighted areas unless Fish, Wildlife and Parks determines grizzly bears have gone into their dens prior to that date.

Many of the people offering testimony — both for and against the measures — have undoubtedly become familiar faces to commissioners, as wolf management has drawn voluminous public comment since the commission began discussing wolf regulations this summer.

Seven people, including members of the Montana Trappers Association and Montana Fur Harvesters, argued in favor of earlier trapping season start dates.

Jeff Darrah, a Stevensville resident representing Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said the revised start date “is quite a change for trappers, and it’s a loss.”

He said 90% of the wolves harvested in the state are taken in areas that are subject to the start date change, and suggested wildlife managers revisit grizzly bear protections.

“There’s a lot of green there,” he said, referencing a map of grizzly recovery zones. “We think it’s a good argument for delisting the grizzly bear.”

Regulations approved by the commission in August put the default trapping season start date in grizzly recovery zones at Dec. 15, but FWP was for the first time given the flexibility to push the start date forward to as early as Nov. 29. Several opponents of the proposal argued that the new Dec. 31 start date is unnecessary, given that there have been few unintended captures of grizzly bears under the former regulations.

“We’ve had two issues with grizzly bears since the start of trapping nine years ago with the date starting Dec. 15,” said John Wilson, a trapper from Bonner. “There’s been eight grizzly bears killed by trains in one year — we didn’t adjust train times. There’s been 10 grizzly bears killed by vehicles [and] we don’t shut down highways. … So let us keep trapping and start our date on Nov. 29.”

According to a 2018 FWP report tracking incidental captures of wildlife and dogs, there were three unintentional captures of grizzly bears in Montana between 2012 and 2017, with only one of those incidents involving a wolf trap.

After an hour and a half of testimony, and with little discussion, the commission unanimously approved the regulation changes, which will go into effect this season. 

The changes will be reflected on FWP web pages outlining wolf trapping regulations. FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said he’s not sure if the department is considering a reprint of the wolf regulation booklets, but added that it’s not uncommon for regulations to change. He said department staffers typically know to mention regulation revisions to hunters picking up regulation booklets in person. He said FWP is also considering other outreach efforts to communicate the changes to trappers.

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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.