(Missoula stream) In a somewhat unusual move, the governor of Montana is directing Fish, Wildlife and Parks to rewrite the state’s wolf management plan.
On Thursday, Governor Greg Gianforte sent a letter to FWP Director Hank Worsech asking him to “work with the citizens of Montana to put together a new Wolf Plan.” This is likely the first time that the governor of Montana has ordered the wildlife department to write a wildlife management plan. Usually, the department’s specialists determine the timing of the plans.
“I understand that this task is not a simple one, particularly given the FWP’s current efforts to reexamine the elk management plan and complete the grizzly bear management plan. However, your continued leadership and public involvement in these initiatives leaves me confident that this guidance is timely.
Mark Cook, executive director of the Wolves of the Rockies, said Gianforte’s desire for a new plan for the Wolves may have been prompted by a recent lawsuit.
In late October, WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote sued FWP over an expanded coyote season not based on science. Part of the lawsuit said the coyote quotas are not justified because Montana’s coyote plan is outdated.
“This is what we expected to happen,” Cook said. “You know where this is going. The formation of this board or co-op is going to be crucial to the future of the Wolves in Montana. If the governor is really behind this and wants to do the right thing, there has to be really equal representation from all stakeholders. Not just one representative. wildlife with five outfitters and five livestock producers.”
Gianforte’s letter succinctly summarized the evolution of gray wolf management in the state. He highlighted that Montana published its coyote plan in 2004 after a lengthy public process and that the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved Montana’s plan. The state was then ready when Congress delisted the coyotes in the northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.
The foundations of the current Montana wolf plan recognize that gray wolves are a native species and part of Montana’s wildlife heritage, and that wolf management should be similar to that of other wildlife species. It also states that management should be adaptable and that conflicts should be addressed and resolved.
These solid foundations were the result of a nonpartisan effort that he suspects will be recreated by the FWP this time around,” said Derek Goldman, national field director for the Endangered Species Coalition.
“The wrong time, the wrong people,” Goldman said. “The original wolf plan in Montana was developed through an extensive stakeholder process, and the end result is a very good plan. I’m not sure the current administration and the commission will get better at it. They will most likely make it worse.”
Montana was the first of the three northern Rocky Mountain states to develop a reasonable wolf plan that the Fish and Wildlife Service could accept, followed by Idaho. Managing wolves in Wyoming originally consisted of shooting at sight, so wolves remained protected in Wyoming until the state finally wrote an acceptable plan in 2017.
“The Coyotes were delisted because of the Montana administration’s plan. I mess it up too much, and the feds are going to get involved,” Cook said.
Prior to 2020, the Montana FWP biologists were left on their own to manage the wolves based on the science, wolf management plan, and season-setting decisions made by the FWP committee. The FWP counted wolves until 2017, when they recorded 625 wolves.
The FWP used a patch occupancy model to estimate a population of about 825 wolves in 2019. Then in 2021, FWP switched to a new model, the Integrated Patch Occupancy Model, which added about 300 wolves to the 2019 census.
The most recent FWP report says the wolf population in Montana has declined since its peak in 2011 and has stabilized over the past decade at an estimated 1,100, give or take about 125 wolves, using numbers from the new model.
The depredation of livestock by wolves peaked in Montana at the same time that the wolf population peaked. Since then, wolves have killed about 50 cattle and less than 20 sheep annually. Meanwhile, more livestock producers are learning non-lethal techniques to reduce looting losses.
On the other hand, Idaho began integrating feral wolf management in 2017, once the state was no longer required to report wolf numbers to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2017, a federal wildlife services employee in a helicopter shot 20 wolves on the grounds of the national forest to counter elk predation, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, though many of the elk ran past the target. Aerial shootings were repeated in 2020, killing 17 wolves.
The IDFG extended the wolf season, raised the limit on hunters and hunters, and allowed the use of decoys. The Idaho legislature then passed bills reimbursing wolf hunters for their expenses and requiring 90% of the wolves to be killed.
Starting with the 2021 legislature, Montana has copied several Idaho bills, which mandate wildlife management rather than allow it to survive on a science basis. More anti-wolf bills are scheduled to follow during the 2023 legislature.
On Thursday, Sen. Bob Brown sponsored a bill in committee that would allow aerial bombing. Such laws can restrict what a new wolf management plan can do.
Reporter Laura Lundquist is at firstname.lastname@example.org.