Through my travels across the state, one topic that seems to be on every hunter’s mind is wolves.
Are wolves going to spread to every corner of Montana? Are wolves going to impact my hunting? If wolves do come to my part of Montana and impact my hunting, how is the state going to manage them?
Chris Smith is the chief-of-staff for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener. Smith is also among the folks at FWP who are working to get a wolf management plan in place for Montana. That management plan must be settled on and approved by the FWP commissioners before federal control over wolves will be passed on to the state. The time frame for this to happen is later this year, with a goal that it will be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put into place next year.
How has Montana’s draft of a wolf management plan gotten to this point? It all started during Marc Racicot’s time as governor. Back then, Racicot appointed 12 citizens to a Wolf Advisory Council. It was their job to draft a plan to manage wolves.
When Gov. Judy Martz took office, she endorsed the principles of the original draft and it was at that time the fun really started. FWP then proceeded to hold 13 workshops and took 6,000 comments from across the state.
This process was headed by FWP wildlife biologist Carolyn Sime. Like so many things with wolves, the alternative plans developed relied on the work and input of many people. These plans ranged from taking no action at all to managing the states’ population of wolves to produce the lowest possible number.
The plan that FWP felt was the best possible was to go for a quick delisting of wolves as an endangered species and to start managing them in much the same way mountain lions and black bears are currently managed by the state.
One of the hurdles in getting this plan approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service is that Montana is joined at the hip with Wyoming and Idaho. According to Smith, the three states’ plans have to make sure wolves will remain viable in those states at levels that don’t require re-listing.
The Endangered Species Act states that delisting cannot be done near state borders and the Fish and Wildlife Service looks at the three states as a region. Therein lies part of the problem. Wyoming’s current draft plan classifies wolves as trophy game in the two national parks and a couple of wilderness areas that are within the state borders.
If the wolves are anyplace else in Wyoming, they will be treated much like Montana manages coyotes or foxes. They will be fair game year-round.
Smith is cautiously optimistic that Wyoming will eventually adopt a plan more in line with what Montana has drafted. Only time will tell. Another hurdle that had to be overcome before wolves could be delisted was a criteria set out by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
There had to be 30 or more wolf packs in the region for three consecutive years before the de-listing process could begin. The region has passed that hurdle. In fact, more than 40 wolf packs occupy the three-state region and amount to an estimated 690 wolves.
Looking ahead, Smith hopes that Montana’s draft plan on wolf management gets the FWP Commission’s stamp of approval by March. After that, it will be put out for public comment and hopefully adopted by June to submit to the Fish and Wildlife Service.