Lizzy Pennock

Wolf and grizzly bear management planning is underway in Montana, and the Gianforte administration’s strategy for managing these species could not be more clear: our way, or the highway.

In the coming months, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) will release the Final Montana Statewide Grizzly Bear Management Plan and the Draft Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. Despite appearing to encourage public involvement in crafting the plans, upon closer inspection, these public participation opportunities are hollow.

Let’s take a step back. Wolf and grizzly management plan processes fall under the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA. Under MEPA, FWP must prepare detailed environmental reviews, called environmental impact statements, to analyze the efficacy and effects of the plans. Additionally, the agency must analyze alternatives to its preferred course of action. During the last wolf management planning process between 2002 and 2004, for example, FWP analyzed five alternatives.

This time around, FWP has so far provided the public with just two alternatives for the wolf plan: their proposal, and an alternative of no new plan at all. But this “alternative” is a ruse: the Governor explicitly ordered FWP to create a new wolf plan in January. ‘No plan’ is simply not an option.

If ‘no plan’ isn’t actually an option because of the Governor’s order, we know how this planning process will end: with the adoption of the administration’s preferred plan. How can our comments mean anything if they’ve already decided on the result?

We’re asking that question about the grizzly plan, too. The draft grizzly management plan and environmental impact statement released last winter provided no real alternatives: again, it called for FWP’s plan or no new plan at all. That didn’t stop many concerned grizzly bear advocates across the state from robustly commenting on the draft plan, but whether FWP’s planners will even read those comments is a mystery.

Public engagement on the grizzly bear management plan was not only likely a total façade, but FWP initially gave Montanans just 30 days—over the December holiday season, no less—to read and comment on several hundred pages of technical, complex information. Only after bear advocates fought tooth and nail did FWP extend the time to 60 days.

FWP can still remedy these issues. To start, the agency must consider all public comments on the grizzly plan and not just rubber stamp its proposed plan. And FWP can provide 90 days for the public to submit comments on the wolf plan from the start. Further, the agency’s forthcoming environmental review must propose several additional alternatives for public review and comment. At least one of these alternatives should provide for a thriving wolf population and best coexistence practices; wolves play a critical role in keeping Montana’s ecosystems healthy and balanced, and wolf management should reflect that. And hey, while we’re at it, a return to science-based decision-making would be great, too.

Wildlife is part of the public trust. The state has a duty to manage wildlife for the public and for future generations. But the pattern of management we’ve seen under the Gianforte administration for wolves and grizzlies has silenced many Montanans and ignored science in order to benefit the private interests of trappers, trophy hunters, and anti-carnivore livestock ranchers.

Whether or not FWP changes course and creates meaningful public participation opportunities for us, we must still robustly comment on the draft wolf plan. The privatization of our wildlife must stop and all Montanans must have the chance to have our voices heard. Even if they refuse to listen, we will not be silenced.

Lizzy Pennock, J.D., is the Montana-based carnivore coexistence attorney for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group committed to protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West.