HELENA — On Thursday, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced he’d directing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to develop a new wolf management plan for the state.
“Given the public and legislature’s engagement in wolf management, it is an appropriate time to revisit the Wolf Plan,” Gianforte wrote in a letter to FWP Director Hank Worsech. “Accordingly, I am directing FWP to collaborate with the citizens of Montana to form a new Wolf Plan.”
The state’s current Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was developed in the early 2000s, with the final plan dated August 11, 2003. Congress delisted wolves in 2011 which allowed states to individually manage populations.
During the 2021 legislative session, the Montana Legislature passed three bills revising laws on harvesting wolves, making it easier to hunt wolves in the state and directing the Fish and Wildlife Commission to manage populations at “a sustainable level.” The commission, consisting primarily of Gianforte-appointed members, then made changes that allowed for the harvest of up to 450 wolves in the 2021-2022 hunting season which was around 40 percent of the total estimated population in the state according to FWP data. The commission also approved baiting and night hunting of wolves on private lands.
The 2021-22 wolf season saw 19 wolves in Montana killed near Yellowstone National Park. One Yellowstone wolf pack, the Phantom Lake Pack, was considered eliminated by park biologists. The new wolf policy near the park saw outcry from wildlife advocates, local wildlife viewing guides and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.
The current 68th Session of the Montana Legislature has already seen one bill related to wolf hunting and two additional bill draft requests.
Gray wolves once existed throughout Montana, but following western expansion and state-sponsored bounties on wolves, the gray wolf was believed eliminated Montana by 1936. In 1974, the remaining gray wolves in the lower 48 states were protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In the early 1980s, gray wolves from Canada began to make their way south and established breeding pairs in northwest parts of the state. Beginning in 1994, United States and Canadian wildlife biologists captured wolves in Canada and relocated and released them in both Yellowstone and central Idaho.
Montana FWP estimated there are about 1,100 wolves living in Montana last year. A total of 273 wolves were killed by hunters in the 2021-22 wolf season.
“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,” Gianforte concluded in his letter.