Montana has a new draft plan to guide its management of wolves, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced late last week. The proposal has implications for a lawsuit over state lawmakers’ attempts to reduce wolf numbers and a petition seeking the restoration of federal protections based on claims that Montana’s laws and regulations jeopardize the animal’s recovery.
The Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan drafted by FWP would replace the 20-year-old document that’s guided Montana’s approach to managing wolves since Congress removed wolves from the Endangered Species Act in 2011.
The old plan directed the state to maintain a population of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs to keep Montana’s wolf population from falling below recovery goals. Like recently released management plans for grizzly bears and elk, the new draft plan for wolves shies away from setting a minimum or maximum number of wolves. It instead says “FWP will continue to manage wolves with a primary objective of maintaining a healthy, sustainable population above federal ESA listing criteria (15 breeding pairs or 450 wolves).” The latter figure was the result of a formula finding that it takes between 305-437 wolves to support 15 breeding pairs.
Wolves of the Rockies President Marc Cooke said that approach reads to him more like managing for the “floor” — the minimum number required to keep wolves from coming under the protection of the Endangered Species Act — than using a science-based approach that will “let nature do what it knows how to do.”
“The new wolf management plan is disappointingly clear that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ senior leadership is complicit with the Gianforte administration,” Cooke said. “They want the bare minimum number of wolves in Montana [without giving up] state management.”
Cooke said he doubts setting the bar so low will favor the long-term state management of wolves, which has been a goal of FWP and the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the seven-member governor-appointed body that’s charged with the “wise management” of the state’s wildlife.
“They have an agenda, and it’s about killing large carnivores. I would just hope that people understand that today it’s wolves, three or four months ago it was mountain lions, and the day will come when it’s the grizzly bear,” Cooke said. “And when these animals are relisted — because at some point they will be relisted — it has to be clear that the responsibility lies firmly in the lap of the senior leadership that is currently guiding FWP.”
According to the plan, Montana’s wolf population “appears to have stabilized” in the decade since the animal’s removal from the Endangered Species List and now averages 194 packs and 1,165 wolves per year. “Since delisting and transition to state management, harvest increased and depredation removals decreased, but since 2018, both have remained stable,” the plan reads.
Depredation removals refer to the number of wolves killed for preying on cattle and sheep. Livestock depredations peaked around 2009 when wolves killed about 200 sheep and 100 cattle. In a table detailing that trend, FWP notes that data collection on the number of wolves removed per depredation is “inconsistently recorded.”
Lizzy Pennock, a carnivore coexistence attorney with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that’s engaged in litigation with Montana over wolf-related measures state lawmakers passed in 2021, said the plan is reflective of the influence agricultural producers and outfitters wield in Montana. She argued that those depredation figures are a small fraction of the total number of livestock deaths.
“The livestock industry, big game hunters and wolf hunters have this outsized influence in the political sphere because they’ve been so politically powerful and well-funded … but if you get down to the statistics — how much they’re affected — it’s really not there,” she said.
To illustrate her point, Pennock highlighted a piece of the draft plan referencing a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Just 2% of adult cattle deaths and 10% of calf deaths were attributed to predators, and wolves were responsible for a fraction of that percentage: 10% of adult cattle mortalities and 13% of calf mortalities. Combine those percentages and what you get, she said, is wolf-related cattle mortality of between .2% and 1.3%.
“Those are tiny numbers, and they really don’t — I think — justify the amount of money, time and management decisions spent trying to make livestock producers happy,” Pennock said.
On opening day of Montana’s expanded wolf-hunting season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it has decided to conduct an in-depth status review to determine whether state management plans aiming to aggressively reduce wolf populations threaten the recovery of gray wolves.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association did not respond to Montana Free Press’ request for its comment on the plan. A Montana Farm Bureau Federation spokesperson told MTFP that her organization plans to comment on the plan but has not yet had the opportunity to review the document, which is 110 pages long.
Another section of the plan that’s likely to draw interest pertains to a population-estimation tool called the integrated Patch Occupancy Model, or iPOM. In the plan, FWP described it as a “modern, scientifically peer-reviewed and cost-effective” means of monitoring population trends across the vast swath of western Montana that wolves now occupy.
FWP’s use of iPOM played a significant role in a lawsuit over Montana wolf management that WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote filed last fall. That lawsuit argues that laws the Montana Legislature passed in 2021 violate the “public trust doctrine” of wildlife management, which holds that certain natural resources belong to the people and that the government must protect them for future generations. Plaintiffs in that lawsuit maintain that the iPOM model is not peer-reviewed, was never subject to public comment and is prone to overestimating the state’s wolf population.
Pennock told MTFP that she is glad that iPOM’s incorporation into the new wolf management plan invites researchers’ critique of the model. WildEarth Guardians has asserted that a “minimum count” framework, which uses data from aerial surveys and radio collars to estimate population, is more accurate. Without good data, wildlife managers are prone to setting hunting and trapping quotas too high, which will harm the animals’ long-term viability, WildEarth Guardians has argued.
The Montana Trappers Association, which lobbied on behalf of the 2021 bills challenged in the WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit, did not respond to MTFP’s request for comment on the plan. In a Facebook post about the plan release, the group urged its members to comment and highlighted material from an FWP news release about the plan. More specifically, the post drew attention to the plan’s incorporation of “updates in wolf-related research, more than 20 years of management experience, evolution in conflict management, new laws, social perspectives, and public input.”
Representatives from environmental, agricultural, and hunting and trapping groups won’t be the only individuals studying the state’s management plan. The U.S. Fish and Service will also be taking a close look.
In the Oct. 27 lawsuit, the groups argue that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission have violated the Montana Constitution as well as state and federal laws in their management of gray wolves.
Three proposals that seek to change how bears and wolves are managed in Montana passed out of the Legislature Wednesday on largely Republican support. The bills headed to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk in the coming weeks illustrate a deep divide between how Republican and Democratic lawmakers think about managing predators in the state.
Two years ago, the agency announced that it found sufficient merit in petitions seeking the relisting of wolves to conduct a further study of their long-term viability. More specifically, USFWS flagged “potential increases in human-caused mortality [that] may pose a threat to the gray wolf in the western U.S.” and concerns that “new regulatory mechanisms in Idaho and Montana may be inadequate to address this threat.” (As in Montana, Idaho’s state legislature has called for the aggressive reduction of its wolf population.)
Per federal regulations, USFWS was supposed to act on that petition by the summer of 2022, but it has not yet landed on a decision.
In an emailed statement to MTFP, a spokesperson for USFWS said the agency “continues to review and, as appropriate, incorporate new information into its status review.” The spokesperson also said that the agency has committed to issuing its finding by Feb. 2 as a result of a settlement agreement.
FWP will be taking comments on the plan through Dec. 19 and is hosting a series of meetings around the state to answer questions related to the plan starting Dec. 7.
Before Tim Sheehy was the frontrunner in Montana’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the ex-Navy SEAL, aerial firefighter, millionaire business owner, part-time rancher and occasional political donor was a 2004 graduate of a Minneapolis-St. Paul area private high school who grew up in a lake house outside Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
Missoula author Debra Magpie Earling carried the seeds of a story about Sacajewea for years. When she walked away from teaching at the University of Montana, she finally made the mental space to bring it to fruition. The result is this year’s “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling talks about imagination and history with MTFP…
Most of us have had peanut brittle, a classic holiday treat. But have you ever swapped out the peanuts for pistachios? It adds a fun flavor and provides a remarkable color contrast with the amber candy. If you have a parent, sibling or friend who’s notoriously hard to buy for, it might be time to…