By Michael Wright - February 14, 2019 - Originally published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A Bozeman Democrat and several wildlife advocates Thursday urged a Senate committee to advance a bill that would block hunting and trapping of wolves near the border of Yellowstone National Park.
Senate Bill 185, sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, would block hunting and trapping wolves in two wolf management units adjacent to the border of Yellowstone — 313 and 316. The bill’s introduction came after the killing of a famous wolf known as Spitfire near Cooke City, a death lamented by wolf advocates nationwide.
Phillips told the Senate Fish and Game committee that the famous wolf had been killed easily because it was naive and unafraid of people, and that most of the wolves taken in that district have similar traits. He said they’re “easy pickings” for hunters who wait for them to cross the park border.
He also said blocking the take in the two districts — each with a quota of two — would have little impact on state wolf management, and that his bill isn’t about legislating wildlife management.
“It is about symbolism, broad brush considerations of the value of wildlife and empathy for naive, highly regarded animals,” Phillips said.
But sportsmen’s groups and agriculture groups lined up in opposition of the bill, arguing that it would essentially extend the boundaries of Yellowstone by creating a buffer zone where hunting is blocked. Opponents also said the Legislature shouldn’t be involved in such a decision.
“We feel that this is a decision best left to the Fish and Game commission,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Wolves were essentially eliminated from Montana in the early 1900s, according to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Field Guide. They were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, and the population grew rapidly. The 2017 Montana Gray Wolf Annual Report estimated the state’s population at about 900 wolves. Organized wolf hunting began in Montana for the first time in 2009.
Phillips’ bill is narrowly focused on the two districts, which are near the towns of Gardiner and Cooke City. Two other hunting districts bordering Yellowstone — 310 and 390 — would not be affected.
Phillips said live wolves are an economic driver for the two towns, which thrive on money spent by visitors to Yellowstone. One owner of a wildlife tour business based in Gardiner spoke in support of the bill.
Marc Cooke, of Wolves of the Rockies, said blocking hunting near the park could also help with chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease affecting deer and elk that was recently discovered in Montana. State officials don’t want to see it spread, and some believe wolves help by killing infected animals.
“Wolves are on the ground 24/7,” Cooke said. “They can help prevent the spread or the invasiveness of this disease.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council also supported the bill.
But Jay Bodner, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said the quotas for the districts are adequate protections for the animals. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation opposed the bill, as did the Montana Woolgrowers Association. A representative of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers also opposed the bill.
The committee did not vote on the bill.
Phillips has introduced two other bills this session aimed at protecting predators. Senate Bill 186 would ban predator-killing contests, and Senate Bill 187 would outlaw injuring predators by intentionally running them over. Both will be heard by the same committee next week.