State wildlife agency eyes overhaul of wolf regulations

Mar. 28—Two decades after first adopting a wolf management plan, state officials are considering overhauling and updating the document.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is looking for comments on a proposed action to develop a new wolf management program as part of the public scoping process. Greg Lemon, the head of communication and education for the wildlife agency, said that there are two alternatives before stakeholders: either draft a new wolf plan or retain the existing document.

"This a great opportunity to possibly craft a new wolf plan and get a lot of public information on it," Lemon said.

The proposal comes at the behest of the governor's office. Gov. Greg Gianforte charged the state wildlife agency with creating a fresh management plan for wolves with broad public engagement due to "the interest in wolf management across the state," according to an agency press release.

Under the Montana Environmental Policy Act, the agency is required to perform public scoping. Officials are looking for comments regarding environmental concerns and issues people might see with the crafting of a new plan or the continued use of the old one.

"Right now, we want people to consider both alternatives in the scoping process," Lemon said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is hosting two virtual public meetings — set for April 4 and April 11 from 6-8 p.m. — via Zoom. The access information will be posted on the agency's website before the meetings.

The existing wolf management plan — known as the Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan — and associated environmental impact statement were developed in 2003. The request for update comes in light of new research, management tools and methods not included in the 20-year-old plan.

"The scoping process allows the public to tell us what the issues are," Lemon said.

The initiative comes just months after conservation groups WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote criticized the existing plan and requested an end to all wolf hunting in a lawsuit brought against the state regarding regulations for the animal.

The groups argued in November that the state rules for wolf hunting and trapping — laid out in the 2003 plan — violated multiple laws and the Montana Constitution.

"I'm not convinced this isn't a coincidence since we asked for this in our lawsuit," said Lizzy Pennock, a carnivore coexistence advocate at WildEarth Guardians.

According to Pennock, the state had argued the current plan remained up to date during the legal fight.

Pennock, though, said she is looking forward to a possible overhaul, especially since both the populations and politics surrounding the animal have significantly changed since 2003.

"We are pleased that they are taking these first baby steps in what should be a really long, thorough process if they do it right," Pennock said.

She added that she hopes that the plan doesn't focus on all the ways humans can harvest wolves, but rather on maintaining a stable population.

The plan itself is a comprehensive document detailing how the wildlife agency manages wolves around the state. If that management required a change in regulations — such as hunting regulations — then the Fish and Wildlife Commission must approve it.

Interested parties can comment during a public meeting, emailing fwpwolfplaneis@mt.gov, or mailing comments to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Division at 1420 E. Sixth Ave. Helena, MT 59620. The scoping comment period ends April 22.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.