Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Montana has released the draft of its first updated gray wolf conservation and management plan in 20 years, along with a draft environmental impact statement, and is asking for public input on the plans and holding regional public meetings in December.

The conservation and management plan and draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) were the product of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s directive in January that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks come up with a new plan 20 years after the original plan was put in place, and after the 2021 legislature directed the state to reduce Montana’s wolf population and allowed for more types of hunting and trapping to be used to take the animals.

Montana reduced the quota of wolves that could be harvested this current season to 313, down from 450, as FWP cited a slight decline in the state’s wolf population over the past two years. Thus far, 33 wolves have been killed by hunters and trappers, according to state data.

Perhaps the biggest prong of the draft management plan and DEIS is how FWP plans to manage wolf populations and newly added requirements from the legislature, and signed by Gianforte, under his administration.

The wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains, including Montana, increased steadily in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and since Montana took over management of the species in 2011, it has adhered to federal recovery goals of having at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in Montana.

That was about the estimated population size of Montana’s wolves in 2004, and FWP says the population has remained at least six to eight times that since 2011, between 1,087 and 1,260 wolves in about 190 packs from 2011 to 2022 despite between 166 and 327 wolves being killed each year after both hunting and trapping became legal in 2012. The state says hunters and trappers have never killed more than 15% of Montana’s wolf population in a year.

FWP’s draft plan and DEIS says that wolf population counting and estimation methods have changed since the 2003 plan was put together, and it now uses what is called an “integrated patch occupancy model” (iPOM) to monitor population sizes and where the wolf packs are located that it will use moving forward instead of radio collars and visual surveys.

The model uses hunter surveys, known locations via radio collars, and other habitat factors to predict the number of packs, and the number of wolves in each pack, in various areas.

“FWP will use iPOM to monitor wolves until better science-based methods become available and are practical with implementable strategies across the vast portion of Montana occupied by wolves,” FWP said in the draft plan.

The department said monitoring wolves in the former fashion across 25,000 square miles was “expensive, cumbersome, and unrealistic.” But it also said it might return to those strategies if the wolf population declines too much, though it notes that wolves have become more difficult to collar once people could hunt and trap them.

The draft plan says the state wants to be “cautious” in both following the 2021 legislature’s directive that the Fish and Wildlife Commission establish hunting and trapping seasons “with the intent to reduce the wolf population in this state to a sustainable level” and adhering to federal requirements.

The department believes that keeping the baseline of 450 wolves will certainly ensure there are 15 breeding pairs in Montana even when the population sizes are only estimated.

“Because the wolf population is considerably greater than the federal recovery threshold, there remains a great deal of flexibility to both reduce the wolf population and still maintain a sustainable population,” the draft plan says.

Research data presented by FWP in the document estimates between 305 and 437 wolves would be needed to support 15 breeding pairs. The plan explicitly does not set a cap on the number of wolves in Montana.

“The challenge is balancing conflicting values and addressing the diverse needs of wolves and humans in the context of the Legislative directive,” the draft plan says. “But it says that if the wolf population declines enough to where it starts approaching 450 wolves, the department would recommend the Fish and Wildlife Commission shift strategies and likely end the wolf hunting and trapping seasons until the population recovers.

The document says that FWP has no plan for restricting wolves’ territories in Montana, and that those territories will likely change slightly over the years based on human populations, the abundance of deer and elk in various areas, and how packs change.

The draft plan also says that FWP believes that at least 25% to 30% of the current wolf population would have to be killed to cause negative population growth to reach 450, and repeatedly says that the state’s wolf population has recovered and has been mostly stable for the past several years despite the hunting and trapping, which are the main causes of wolf mortalities in Montana.

“Recommendations made by FWP for certain harvest strategies stem from laws and policies, given wolf population estimates and trends, as well as hunter and trapper success rates,” the plan says. “If liberalized harvest is determined the pose a risk to long-term population persistence, then the FWP recommendation may shift to be more conservative.”

The draft plan estimates that if between 450 and 700 wolves are killed over a five-year period and other human-caused mortalities, like car crashes, remain steady, the population would approach the 450-wolf threshold, and any higher human-caused mortality would force a reduction in harvests for 1-3 years.

The draft plan reports a “relatively low” mortality rate for deer, elk and moose due to wolves in various regions of western Montana, and says wolf depredation of cattle and sheep in Montana has sharply declined, from 233 in 2009 to 100 or fewer each year from 2014-2022 – possibly due in part to the expansion of nonlethal deterrents.

The DEIS option preferred by FWP essentially expands on current management and conservation plans, and would continue to allow for hunting and trapping.

The document says it rejected two other alternatives – one that would have allowed wolves to manage themselves by eliminating hunting and trapping seasons, which FWP said was both in violation of Montana law and “impractical and unreasonable,” and a second that would have eliminated wolves, which was also dismissed as being “impractical and biologically harmful.”

Some Montana groups in the few days since the plan was released have balked at it, saying they believe the state might up the quotas for each season and try to get closer to the minimum threshold. Several also called for a citizen advisory board to have more input on the plan, as was the case for the 2003 plan.

The department has opened a public comment portal for the public to comment on the plans through Dec. 19.

It is also hosting six public meetings across the state in December at which FWP regional commissioners and staff will discuss the plans and answer questions, the department said:

  • Region 1 – Kalispell, Dec. 7, 6-8 p.m., FWP Office, 490 N Meridian Road
  • Region 2 – Missoula, Dec. 13, 6-8 p.m., FWP Office, 3201 Spurgin Road
  • Region 3 – Bozeman, Dec. 5, 6-8 p.m., FWP Office, 1400 S 19th Avenue
  • Regions 4 and 6 – Great Falls, Dec. 4, 6-8 p.m., FWP Office, 4600 Giant Springs Road
  • Regions 5 and 7 – Billings, Dec. 6, 6-8 p.m., FWP Office, 2300 Lake Elmo Drive
  • Virtual Meeting – Dec. 12 (visit for login information.)