FWP Reopens Comment Period for Grizzly, Wolf Management Plans

The new deadline for the public to comment is March 9, an extension that state wildlife managers set ‘to ensure Montana counties, Tribes, and state and federal agencies have a chance for input’

By Tristan Scott
A grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seen on Sept. 12, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Facing a groundswell of interest in the long-term management of grizzly bears and wolves in Montana, the state’s wildlife management agency announced this week it is reopening the public comment period for both the 2024 Grizzly Bear Management Plan and the Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.

The new deadline for the public to comment is March 9, an extension that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) officials are allowing “to ensure Montana counties, Tribes, and state and federal agencies have a chance for input,” according to the state agency’s Feb. 13 announcement. 

“Wolves and grizzly bears are iconic and controversial species,” said FWP Director Dustin Temple, who added that the extension will ensure that Montana statute requiring FWP to notify county commissioners of opportunities to comment on management plans for grizzlies, wolves and other large carnivores has been met. “We want to ensure that everyone who has a stake in how these two species are managed can have a chance to comment on our draft plans before they are final.” 

It will also allow for additional time for tribal partners and other state and federal agencies to provide input, Temple said. 

The new grizzly bear plan will inform management statewide, focusing on the 30 counties in which grizzly bear presence has been documented in recent years or may be documented in the near future. Since grizzly bears are still listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the plan is designed to inform state management while this species remains federally listed. The plan also addresses FWP’s future vision for management when any grizzly bear populations in Montana are delisted and full management authority for them is returned to the state. 

A wolf slinks through the grass near the Inside North Fork in Glacier National Park on July 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The wolf plan shifts a key counting metric from the number of breeding pairs to the number of wolves representing at least 15 breeding pairs. The plan establishes that 450 wolves would ensure 15 breeding pairs. Population estimates will continue to be determined by the peer-reviewed Integrated Patch Occupancy Modeling method, or iPOM. The plan also describes the current depredation prevention and response program. 

The latest data compiled at the end of 2022 revealed there are just under 1,100 wolves in Montana, or about 181 packs. Total wolf numbers peaked in Montana with 188 packs and 1,259 wolves in 2011, which is the same year that Congress stripped ESA protections from the species, allowing Montana to begin harvest management. Approximately 480 wolves roam the land managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Region 1, an area spanning northwest Montana that includes the Flathead Valley.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) denied a petition from an alliance of more than 70 conservation groups seeking to restore federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves, which they framed as necessary as some western states, including Montana, expand wolf hunting and trapping opportunities. Although federal wildlife managers said the decision follows “a path to support a long-term and durable approach to the conservation of gray wolves,” and pledged to adopt a first-of-its-kind National Recovery Plan, the conservation groups on Feb. 7 notified FWS of their plans to sue the agency over its decision.

In Montana in 2021, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 3-2 to increase wolf harvests by allowing neck snaring and trap baiting statewide, as well as night hunting on private land and other changes to the season. The vote followed direction from the 2021 Legislature requiring state agencies to decrease wolf numbers and legalize new hunting measures to do so. Testimony on behalf of the suite of bills targeting wolves cited depressed elk numbers and diminishing rates of hunter success in wolf-heavy areas of the state, including northwest Montana.

According to FWP’s Montana Wolf Harvest dashboard, Montana hunters and trappers killed 258 wolves during the 2022 harvest season and have already killed nearly 263 wolves in the 2023 harvest season, which runs until March 15. That includes 110 wolves in FWP’s Region 1, where the quota is 131; 79 wolves in Region 2, where the quota is 104; and 48 wolves in Region 3, where the quota is 52. Harvest quotas have already been met in Regions 4, 5, 6 and 7, prompting the season’s closure. The hunting season for wolves was also closed in Wildlife Management Unit 313, where the quota of six wolves was met.

Both draft plans were out for public comment in 2023. People who previously submitted comments on the draft plans do not need to submit them again.  

To comment on the Grizzly Bear Management Plan, go to fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/grizzly-bear-management-plan.

To comment on the Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, go to fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/draft-wolf-mgmt-plan.