Gov. Gianforte calls for new wolf management plan
(Missoula Current) In a somewhat unusual move, Montana’s governor is directing Fish, Wildlife & Parks to rewrite the state wolf management plan.
On Thursday, Governor Greg Gianforte sent a letter to FWP Director Hank Worsech, telling him to “collaborate with the citizens of Montana to form a new Wolf Plan.” This is likely the first time that a Montana governor has ordered his wildlife department to write a wildlife management plan. Normally, the department’s professionals determine the timing of the plans.
“I understand this task is not simple, especially given FWP’s current efforts to re-examine the elk management plan and complete the grizzly bear management plan. Your ongoing leadership and public engagement on these initiatives, however, leaves me confident that this directive is timely,” Gianforte wrote.
Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies executive director, said Gianforte’s desire for a new wolf plan was probably prompted by a recent lawsuit.
In late October, WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote sued FWP for its expanded wolf season that isn’t science-based. Part of the lawsuit said the wolf quotas aren’t justified because the Montana wolf plan is out of date.
“This is what we expected would happen,” Cooke said. “You know where this is going. The composition of that council or collaborative is going to be crucial for the future of wolves in Montana. If the governor is truly behind this and wants to do the right thing, there needs to be truly equal representation from all stakeholders. Not just one wildlife representative with five outfitters and five livestock producers.”
Gianforte’s letter briefly summarized the evolution of gray wolf management in the state. He highlighted that Montana published its wolf plan in 2004 after a lengthy public process and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved Montana’s plan. The state was then ready when Congress delisted wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.
The foundations of Montana’s existing wolf plan recognize 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.
Derek Goldman, National Field Director for the Endangered Species Coalition, said those solid foundations were the result of a nonpartisan effort that he doubts will be recreated by FWP this time.
“Wrong time, wrong people,” Goldman said. “Montana’s original wolf plan was developed by a broad stakeholder process, and the end result is a pretty good plan. I’m not confident that the current administration and commission will improve upon that. They will most likely make it worse.”
Montana was the first of the three states in the Northern Rockies to develop a reasonable wolf plan that the Fish and Wildlife Service could accept, followed by Idaho. Wyoming’s wolf management originally consisted of shoot-on-sight, so wolves remained protected in Wyoming until the state finally wrote an acceptable plan in 2017.
“Wolves were delisted because of Montana’s management plan. Screw with it too much, and the feds will step in,” Cooke said.
Prior to 2020, Montana FWP biologists were left alone to manage wolves based on science, the wolf management plan and the season-setting decisions made by the FWP commission. FWP counted wolves until 2017, when they recorded 625 wolves.
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 population.
The most recent FWP wolf report says Montana’s wolf population has decreased 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.
Wolf depredation of livestock peaked in Montana about the same time the wolf population peaked. Since then, wolves have killed around 50 cattle and less than 20 sheep annually. In the meantime, more livestock producers are learning nonlethal techniques to minimize depredation losses.
Idaho, on the other hand, started incorporating heavy-handed wolf management in 2017, once the state was no longer required to report wolf counts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2017, a federal Wildlife Services employee in a helicopter shot 20 wolves on National Forest land to address predation on elk, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, even though many elk populations are over objective. The aerial gunning was repeated in 2020, killing 17 wolves.
IDFG extended its wolf season, upped the tag limit for hunters and trappers, and allowed the use of snares. The Idaho Legislature then passed bills reimbursing wolf trappers for expenses and requiring that 90% of the wolf population be killed.
Starting with the 2021 Legislature, Montana has copied many of Idaho’s bills, mandating wildlife management instead of allowing it to remain science-based. More anti-wolf bills are slated to follow during the 2023 Legislature. Such laws could constrain what a new wolf management plan could do.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.