Mutiny or the bounty

A few weeks back, Darby outfitter Scott Boulanger mentioned an obscure state statute during an interview with the Indy about possible solutions for Montana's alleged wolf problem. He cited 81-7-201, a law outlining a county-based bounty program for big predators. Boulanger's looking for any solution he can find.

He isn't alone. Ranchers recently approached commissioners in Jefferson County with a bounty program proposal on lions and wolves based on 81-7-201. The commission has to approve the proposal if 51 percent or more of the livestock growers in the county are on board with the petition.

Becky Jakes-Dockter, chief legal counsel for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the legal entanglements surrounding a bounty program remain unclear. The agency requires a state-issued hunting tag for wolf and lion kills, putting bounty hunters in a tricky gray area. The only existing exception is for predators killed while actively harassing or attacking livestock.

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Until FWP knows exactly what ranchers in Jefferson County are proposing, Jakes-Dockter says the agency has no idea what legal issues might arise.

Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman says any approved bounty program would certainly comply with state law. And despite what 81-7-201 allows, he doesn't want to see hunters killing wolf pups or lion kittens. But the situation is at a "boiling point," Wortman warns. Ranchers aren't happy. They've had wolves thrust on them "against their will."

The Montana Department of Livestock doesn't keep records on livestock predation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported only two confirmed cases of livestock predation by wolves in Jefferson County in 2009. Neighboring Madison County had 26—the second highest in the state. But it's not just the deaths, Wortman says. Cattle are losing weight. They're tearing out fences in panic. Ranchers don't get reimbursed for that.

Wally Congdon, regional director for the Montana Cattlemen's Association in Jefferson County, says his concerns extend beyond livestock growers. Small businesses are hit hard by declining hunting opportunities, he says. More aggressive steps need to be taken, as long as the state and the feds are involved in the discussion.

"This isn't just about ranching," Congdon says. "This is about rural Montana."

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