Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Montana solicits input on wolf management plan

by AMANDA EGGERT Montana Free Press
| November 1, 2023 12:00 AM

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.

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