A wolf makes its way across a road in Yellowstone National Park. (Jacob W. Frank/Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service)
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday ordered Fish, Wildlife and Parks to develop a new state wolf management plan, which the department believes it can finish by the end of the year.
“Given the public and Legislature’s engagement in wolf management, it is an appropriate time to revisit the Wolf Plan,” Gianforte wrote to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Hank Worsech. “… I understand this task is not simple.”
Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said in written responses to questions asked by the Daily Montanan that the department agreed with the governor’s directive. He said while it will be a large undertaking, the department believes the process will be “relatively straightforward with scoping, draft plan development, public input and final decision.”
“We’ll look to engage the public as soon as possible and have the plan completed by the end of 2023,” Lemon said.
History of gray wolf populations
Federal efforts to bolster the gray wolf population started in the 1980s, and the wolves’ recovery hastened when they were introduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995. The current plan was finalized by the federal government in 2004 after two years of work by a citizen’s advisory council and Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Endangered Species Act protections were lifted by Congress for gray wolves in Montana, Idaho and parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah in 2011, when there were an estimated 1,250 wolves in Montana and two years after they were first delisted, only to be put back on the list of endangered species. The state took over management of the population and classified wolves as a Species in Need of Management in 2011.
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Fish, Wildlife and Parks said in its 2021 report it believed the wolf population was stabilizing at around 1,160 but said that was about seven to eight times above requirements.
The quota for wolves in the 2022-23 season is 450 plus six in Wolf Management Unit 313, north of Yellowstone National Park. As of Friday, 129 had been harvested since the Sept. 15 start of the season.
Montana Legislature passed wolf management bills in 2021 session
The Republican-held Montana Legislature passed several bills in the 2021 session to increase the length of the trapping season, allow hunters and trappers to utilize more methods, and allow for hunter reimbursements. The Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted new regulations later that year.
Supporters of the broader wolf hunting and trapping regulations say they help cut down on livestock and other game predation, while opponents have decried those regulations and the methodology used to count wolves.
Two groups – WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote – sued the state in October, asking that federal protections be put back in place and alleging the state is not following its own management laws and not updating the plan developed 20 years ago.
A judge in late November lifted a temporary restraining order blocking the hunting regulations, saying the groups had not proven Montana’s wolf population would be irreparably harmed by them.
Lizzy Pennock, with WildEarth Guardians, in a written statement Friday, said the group was “pleased” to see the state complying with the need to update the plan, which the group alleged should be updated every five years. She said the group was evaluating how the directive might affect its lawsuit in Lewis and Clark County District Court.
“We look forward to working together with the state through the robust public participation process governing agency rulemaking in Montana to ensure that wolves are managed based on the best available science and as a public trust resource for all Montanans,” Pennock said.
Lemon said Fish, Wildlife and Parks believes the current plan will lay a good framework in developing the new plan.
“The successful state management to date based upon the tested content of the current plan represents a solid foundation from which to start the new plan and its development process,” he said.
Gianforte wrote in his letter that he believed the directive was a timely request.
“I remain certain that as we engage in this new planning endeavor, the Montana gray wolf population will continue to be managed effectively as a viable population far into the future,” he said.
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