Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) In an unusual move, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has re-opened comment periods for its proposed grizzly bear and gray wolf management plans for another 25 days.

This week, FWP in a press release said it would take public comment on the two plans until March 9. Both plans have already had 60 days each of public comment, but FWP said it was opening another round, because the department wanted to be sure it hadn’t violated state laws requiring FWP to notify county commissioners of the opportunity to comment.

The draft Grizzly Bear Management Plan has languished for a year since it was published on Dec. 6, 2022. The associated comment period was originally scheduled to close on Jan. 5, 2023. But after some people complained that the comment period occurred during the Christmas holidays, FWP extended the date to Feb. 4.

FWP Grizzly Bear Planning Coordinator Rich Harris had worked the preceding two years cobbling together aspects of Montana’s two existing grizzly plans -one for western Montana and one for the southwest region near Yellowstone National Park - and the IGBC conservation strategy documents for each recovery area. Harris also took into account the 2019 recommendations from the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council and a survey of Montana’s attitudes toward grizzly bears.

The grizzly bear plan and environmental impact statement covers a wide range of topics, including conflict prevention and response, transplanting bears, management of motorized access, climate change and hunting.

The plan doesn’t establish statewide minimum or maximum numeric population objectives. Achieving and sustaining recovered populations in the established zones would be an objective, but little emphasis is placed outside recovery zones.

A court injunction issued in November requires FWP to limit its wolf trapping season to Jan. 1 through Feb. 15 for all wolf districts west of Billings to ensure grizzly bears are in their dens so they wouldn’t be accidentally trapped. This winter, in particular, has seen grizzlies out and about even in January due to the warm temperatures and minimal snow. The grizzly plan doesn’t address whether the trapping season would change once grizzlies are delisted.

Hundreds of people have already commented on the grizzly plan, including 27 organizations and scientists who jointly submitted 67 pages of problems they found in the plan. They raised doubts that FWP would provide adequate regulatory mechanisms to preserve healthy grizzly populations, due to the plan’s emphasis on hunting and a lack of emphasis on population monitoring and protection of safe habitat, particularly in connectivity areas.

The proposed plan says that FWP would not manage for grizzly bears outside of the core areas, which is problematic for migration and genetic exchange. The commenters also opposed FWP’s proposal to estimate bear populations using controversial mathematical models. Wildlife biologists have used a patch occupancy model to estimate bear populations because bears are difficult to count.

Recently, certain statisticians have replaced the patch occupancy model with the “integrated” patch occupancy model, which produces higher population estimates for both bears and wolves. Some question whether the new estimates are overblown, and a federal judge has required biologists to show the models are comparable.

The Wolf Management Plan was released more recently - Oct. 20 - but is no less contentious.

After a lengthy public process that included input from an advisory council, Montana’s existing wolf plan was published in 2004 in anticipation of eventual delisting. The foundations of the plan recognized that gray wolves are a native species and a 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 adaptive and that conflicts should be addressed and resolved.

Then a year ago, after two organizations that were suing FWP over its wolf management pointed out the wolf plan was 20 years old, Governor Greg Gianforte ordered FWP to write a new plan. Normally, the department’s wildlife professionals determine the timing of plan development.

FWP staff hammered out a draft wolf management plan in about six months and allowed 60 days for public comment, which ended Dec. 19. At some of FWP’s informational meetings in December, wolf advocates let their concerns with the plan be known.

FWP normally uses advisory councils to help devise wildlife management plans, as used with the grizzly bear plan. However, FWP refused to convene an advisory council for the new wolf plan, even though many wolf advocates called for one.

As with the grizzly bear management plan, some people questioned the wolf plan’s use of mathematical modeling to estimate population size. Recently, a research paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed found statistical problems with the integrated patch occupancy model that FWP started using to estimate Montana’s wolf population in 2021 after the Gianforte administration took over. No other state uses the integrated patch occupancy model.

The integrated patch occupancy model estimated the wolf population at about 1,100 in 2022. The draft wolf plan creates a minimum population of 450 wolves to ensure the existence of 15 breeding pairs, which was the minimum number of pairs required for recovery by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To comment on the Grizzly Bear Management Plan, go to To comment on the Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, go to People who previously submitted comments on the draft plans do not need to submit them again.

Contact Laura Lundquist at