Wolf Plan on Track

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Montana’s final plan to conserve and manage gray wolves when they are removed from the federal endangered species list is on track for completion in August, state wildlife officials said today.

"We're rapidly bringing this long and closely watched process to a close," said Jeff Hagener, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "After nearly three years of discussions and dozens of statewide public meetings, we're on track to finalize Montana's wolf management plan in August."

The final plan, and legally required record of decision, will then be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September. Montana's most recent public comment period on the state's 288-page draft wolf plan EIS, which closed in May, generated more than 5,000 specific comments. About 90 percent of all comments came from Montana residents, officials said.

"We're confident the final plan will reflect the public’s desire for FWP to manage wolves in a way that addresses their concerns and allows FWP the flexibility to meet the needs of both wolves and people. It will also reflect Montanan’s willingness to work together to build a successful program," said Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf plan coordinator, who reviewed all the comments and is now preparing the final document.

Among the federal requirements for wolf delisting, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming must have management plans and adequate regulations in place to maintain the recovered wolf population within the northern Rocky Mountain Recovery Area. Each state's wolf management plan and legal framework will be evaluated by federal officials to make sure the recovered wolf population will not become threatened or endangered again.

Idaho's plan is complete and Wyoming is still working with USFWS on plan details. Wyoming officials, however, say they are committed to submitting a plan this summer.

Sime said many comments on the Montana plan and draft EIS specifically addressed FWP's preferred management alternative, which is based on an updated version of a plan developed by Montana’s Wolf Management Advisory Council. She noted that numerous comments also addressed the preferred alternative indirectly. "Many comments that didn't specifically address an alternative tend to fit within the conservation and management strategies and overall philosophy of the preferred alternative," Sime said.

FWP's preferred alternative, one of five presented in the draft EIS, suggests that wolf management in Montana would be based on numbers, distribution and public acceptance, in a manner similar to the way the state manages black bears and mountain lions. Under the agency's preferred alternative, various techniques to manage wolves and resolve conflicts would be based on a benchmark of 15 breeding pairs in Montana.

The gray wolf was recently downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened" in northwestern Montana under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Wolves in southwestern Montana are still classified as "experimental, nonessential" populations under the federal ESA.

An estimated 660 wolves, in about 80 packs with 43 of those qualifying as breeding pairs inhabited the northern Rockies at the end of 2002. At that time, federal officials estimated that 183 wolves, in 35 packs, and about 16 breeding pairs inhabited Montana. Federal wolf managers conclude that a total of 30 or more breeding pairs, equitably distributed in the tri-state recovery area for the past three years indicates that the population is biologically recovered. USFWS's official process to delist the wolf could begin this fall, if USFWS determines that state management plans and laws are adequate to maintain the recovered population.

Wolves from Canada began to naturally recolonize northwestern Montana in the mid 1980s. In the mid 1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the northern Rockies, 66 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Since then, the population has expanded and wolves are now found throughout portions of the federally designated northern Rocky Mountain Recovery Area.