Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) At a public meeting on the Fish, Wildlife & Parks proposed wolf management plan, the trend of more non-sportsmen demanding consideration in FWP management was on display.

On Wednesday night in the FWP Region 2 headquarters in Missoula, FWP’s Wolf Plan Coordinator Samantha Fino gave an overview of the proposed 2023 Montana wolf management plan, which is open for public comment until 5 p.m. on Dec. 19.

Fino repeated several times that the wolf plan was not regulatory, adding that “nothing in the plan can be enforced.” The only regulations are those passed by the Legislature or related rules approved by the FWP commission.

If approved, the 2023 plan would replace the 2003 plan, which was written while the gray wolf was still protected under the Endangered Species Act, but FWP was anticipating delisting in the near future. However, one alternative in FWP’s environmental impact statement is to keep the 2003 plan in place instead of replacing it.

“The big difference is really increased transparency,” Fino said. “We want to provide the public with information on iPOM, with what depredation trends look like, with what regulation changes have looked like, how harvest has changed over time. So the new plan, our preferred alternative, provides increased transparency to all of you, as well as the commission so they can use that information to make more scientifically based decisions.”

When one woman asked if that meant FWP was planning on being more transparent than in the past.

“I wouldn’t say ‘more transparent.’ But because it’s one cohesive document, it’s enhanced transparency,” Fino said.

As with all public meetings on FWP plans since the Gianforte administration took over, Fino told the crowd of about 40 people that the meeting was just informational so their comments Wednesday night would not be included as formal comment on the plan. That didn’t stop people from raising their hands and filling almost two hours with pointed questions and comments.

Several non-sportsmen, also called “non-consumptive users” by FWP, questioned FWP’s use of iPOM, a statistical model, to estimate wolf population numbers since FWP no longer conducts minimum counts of wolves.

One man brought up a research paper released last week that suggests that iPOM uses assumptions that cause it to over-estimate populations. U.S. Geological Survey researcher Sarah Sells, who helped develop iPOM, was present and said the paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet and the results were from a severe misunderstanding of what the process was.

Marc Cooke of Wolves of the Rockies also questioned iPOM because it was a model developed for populations that are expanding. But the 2022 Annual Wolf Report shows that iPOM estimates of the population have been gradually decreasing. Since the wolf plan sets 450 wolves as a minimum to ensure the 15 breeding pairs necessary to keep wolves from being delisted, Cooke said the population could slip below that before iPOM would register a problem. Cooke suggested that FWP should set a population number higher than 450 that triggers when FWP would return to conducting minimal counts of wolves, as they did during the five years after delisting.

Fino said FWP doesn’t do minimum counts anymore, but biologists do counts “opportunistically.”

One woman said that FWP’s numbers show that 99% of livestock loss is due to factors other than wolves and asked why the plan had dropped that down to 90%.

“99% is less than 90,” Fino said. “In the wolf plan, it says that less than 0.34% of cattle is due to wolves, and I believe it’s 1.31% is depredation on calves. You are right, we did the calculations, it is between 0 and 2%.”

Another woman asked why FWP sets annual kill quotas of 300 to 450 wolves if wolves are such a small factor in depredation. Fino said the Legislature mandated that FWP reduce wolves to “a sustainable level,” although that’s not defined. If people wanted to change that, they’d have to pass a bill in the Legislature, Fino said.

A few people asked why FWP was allowing the north Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management to reimburse Montana wolf trappers for their expenses. That was due to one of the several bills in the 2021 Legislature that usurped the FWP commission’s authority, and the state had to change its definition of “bounty” to allow the reimbursement.

About eight members of the Foundation for Wildlife Management were present, and one explained that their members paid for the reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses.

A few people asked how much of what FWP does is based on science as opposed to politics. Fino said FWP uses the best-available science but it also has to allow recreational hunting, fishing and trapping opportunities.

After about 90 minutes, Fino pointed to Jeff Durrah of Ravalli County-based Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, who expressed irritation at having to wait through all the questioning from non-sportsmen. He said he doesn’t see elk anymore where he use to - he just sees wolf, lion and coyote tracks. So he wants wolves to be managed.

“You people talk a lot. And that happens at the commission meetings, it happens in your comments and it happens in all the public forums where you have your say. And you do it. And if you don’t get your way, you file a lawsuit,” Durrah said. “All these liberal methods that are being talked about, if you’ll look at the numbers on how many wolves were harvested since those liberal means were passed, they haven’t gone up. And it’s hard to sit in a room when you’re being dominated with conversation about how you feel. We have feelings as well, and we have beliefs as well.”

Chris Servheen of the Montana Wildlife Federation warned FWP that there was a potential reason so many non-sportsmen were at the meeting asking why unethical methods were being allowed and why it was legal to “waste” or abandon the carcasses. He pointed out that 80% of Montana residents don’t hunt, and they were represented by the growing numbers showing up to protest FWP’s changing policies.

“In this plan, the word “fair chase” doesn’t appear anywhere, and the word “ethical” appears once in relation to research activities, and that’s it,” Servheen said. “I suggest that this plan consider and discuss how a lack of consideration for fair-chase hunting and the use of trapping and unethical wolf hunting practices, how this erodes public support for wolf hunting and trapping. And hunting in general.”

To comment on the proposed wolf plan and the associated environmental impact statement, people can either email comments to fwpwolfplaneis@mt.gov or fill out the online comment form at https://fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/draft-wolf-mgmt-plan.

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