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Commissioners draft large predator policy


By Michael Howell

County Commission Chairman Matt Kanenwisher gave a power point presentation last week of a proposed draft of a county policy for managing large predators.

“It shall be the policy of Ravalli County to coordinate with state and local agencies to establish policies and practices for management of large predators within the county for the purposes of ensuring public health and safety and protecting the tax base of the county,” reads the policy statement.

The document states that the process of coordinating with state or federal wildlife management agencies is not only authorized by the constitution, “but is a duty of the office of County Commissioner.”

While unaware of any instance of a wolf attack on a person in Montana, the policy states, it is nonetheless concerned about potential interactions as wolf populations and range increase. It states that six reports of injury or predation to pets, hunting hounds and horses have been received and there is concern that an individual may exercise poor judgment while witnessing an attack and attempt to intervene, resulting in harm or death to the pet or livestock owner.

A public health and safety concern is also expressed related to the potential spread of a parasite responsible for hyatid cyst diseases. Although no definitive scientific data exists about local increased risk of transmission to humans, the policy states, “Given the lack of data and that the potential for increased infection can’t reasonably be ruled out, allowing ever increasing populations and range of wolves seems unwise and should be given due consideration.”

The policy makes a strong statement about the historical practice of hunting in the county and its value to the community.

“Thousands of Ravalli County residents have grown up hunting in the Bitterroot and thousands more moved to the Bitterroot expressly for that purpose,” it states, emphasizing that it is a state constitutional right. It states that the presence of large predators has caused many people who enjoy the outdoors to modify their activities by carrying a gun or not bringing along pets. It states that some hunters are having to hunt in different areas or not hunt at all because of reduced large ungulate herds.

“The inability to hunt elk or mule deer deprives this group of some of the most valuable experiences of their lives which was previously enjoyed in the Bitterroot for over a century. These groups of people value this time and experience as highly as many value their religious worship,” it states in the draft policy.

While some people do value simply watching wolves, the policy states, “there is no acceptable argument that this admiration of the wolf which simply values the sighting of this species supersedes or trumps the long heritage of hunting and family based activity within the Bitterroot.”

The policy statement claims that, based on FWP estimates for 2007 of $11.3 million in direct revenue from 123,000 hunter days, and the decline in the number of hunters in 2010, it represents $2.5 to $3 million in lost revenue. It claims that the guided hunting industry has suffered greater losses and that the effects in the south valley in terms of lost revenue are “potentially devastating.” The policy states that meat packers and taxidermists have also been negatively affected, as well as subsistence hunters.

While not claiming that the wolf is the only cause of declining elk populations the policy states that it is certainly a component and quotes FWP documents stating that, “Wolf predation is a major cause of mortality preventing the elk population from reaching management objectives in Hunting District 250.” Additionally FWP is quoted as stating, “Elk numbers and particularly calf recruitment have declined as wolf numbers increased.”

The commissioners’ draft policy lists four priorities: protecting the health and safety of people; protecting the safety of pets and livestock; preserving the ability to hunt large game and recreate outdoors safely; and maintaining a viable and connected predator population.

The policy presents some questions to be asked of FWP. What are the criteria for determining the minimum levels of wolves, lions, bears, and grizzly bears? What are the criteria for determining the maximum levels which would trigger changes in management goals and policies? If it is not possible to establish a maximum number or target, what are the criteria which would guide the department in managing wolf, lion and bear hunting quotas? The policy asks FWP to state the necessity and purpose for managing to higher levels of population and/or increased range than currently exist within Ravalli County and for FWP to provide a position or policy concerning the risk, if any, of the spread of hydatid cyst disease via a process which includes the wolf vector.

The draft policy then proposes that when minimum elk population levels, as established within each hunting district, cannot be maintained by reducing the antlerless harvest, and/or when the calf/cow ratio falls below the statewide elk management plan standards, that the county’s recommended “enhanced predator hunting policies be implemented.”

Those enhanced hunting policies would include no quota for wolves, that trapping be permitted from November 15 through March 15, that over the counter tags be made available anytime, that snaring and electronic calls be allowed, that 5 tags per year be available to hunters and trappers, that the general season stretch from August 30 to June 30, that hunter orange is not required, that the non-resident fee be $31.75, and that elk and deer tags may be used on a wolf, and that wolves may be taken incidentally over a bear bait. Similar policy changes for lions and bears are also recommended making over the counter tags available any time, no requirement for hunter orange and reduction in non-resident fees as well as using a deer/elk tag for lions and bears during the general hunting season.

Representatives from two different organizations commented on the draft, one in support and one against.

Keith Kubista of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife said he thought the commissioners were on the right track and that protecting the culture and heritage of hunting in the Bitterroot Valley was of extreme importance.

Marc Cooke of the National Wolf Watch Coalition vehemently opposed the policy, stating that the commissioners were not using good data and were wasting taxpayers’ money on devising a wolf policy. He also criticized the process, claiming that opposing views to the policy were not considered and asked the commissioners to start the process all over again.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott stated that the policy was not really anti-wolf but was simply advocating for humans, elk populations and livestock.

Commissioner Kanenwisher denied that the process was not open and that the public had not had a chance to participate. He acknowledged that the county did not have the authority to manage wolves but that they could help make the voice of Ravalli County citizens be heard in the process.

A copy of the draft policy can be viewed on the county’s website or a hard copy obtained at the Commissioners’ office. Public comment on the draft will be accepted until the end of the month and a hearing is scheduled for possible adoption of the policy on February 9.

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