After three years of extensive public scrutiny and cooperation, Montana wildlife officials today released the state's recommended plan to conserve and manage a recovered gray wolf population, a plan that initially appears acceptable to federal authorities.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Jeff Hagener called the long-awaited plan a "remarkable achievement" that recognizes the need to manage wolves as a part of Montana's overall ecosystem and the benefits of a state-based conservation program.
According to federal managers, wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain region are biologically recovered and no longer need Endangered Species Act protections. Earlier this year, the gray wolf was downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened" in northwestern Montana. Wolves in southwestern Montana remain classified as "experimental, nonessential" populations under the federal ESA.
Before wolves can be officially removed from the federal government's list of endangered species, however, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming each must adopt management plans and regulations that guarantee the wolf population's continued survival under state management.
FWP's recommended wolf conservation and management plan, which is largely based on the work of the 12-member Montana Wolf Management Advisory Council, would maintain a recovered wolf population within Montana's portion of the federally designated Northern Rocky Mountain Recovery Area. The recommended plan, FWP's preferred alternative in the draft EIS, aims to meet the ecological needs of wolves and their prey, yet squarely faces the responsibility to address wolf-related conflicts.
"The plan honors the goodwill and trust of all those who worked together, side-by-side, to balance the needs of wolves with the needs of people," Hagener said. "It's a good compromise that offers more than some folks would like, but less than what others were hoping for. It allows the wolf to find its place among Montana's native wildlife and gives Montana the latitude to respond to local circumstances. The plan is a remarkable achievement and it establishes a new milestone in Montana's wildlife-management history."
The 420-page final environmental impact statement analyzes five wolf-management alternatives and responds to more than 5,000 comments received on the draft document released in March. FWP prepared the final EIS to meet federal requirements, comply with the Montana Environmental Policy Act and to present an approach to wolf management acceptable to Montanans and others.
Director Hagener's Record of Decision--the State of Montana's official notice that one of the five alternatives presented in the Final EIS, or a combination of alternatives, has been formally adopted--can be signed no sooner than 15 days after the release of the final EIS, or not before Sept. 6, officials said.
Under the recommended plan:
· wolves would be encouraged to inhabit places where the potential for conflict is lowest;
· wolf management would be based on wolf numbers, distribution and public acceptance, in a manner similar to the way the state manages black bears and mountain lions;
· wolf-management techniques, and methods to resolve wolf-related conflicts, would be based on a benchmark of 15 breeding pairs of wolves in Montana;
· FWP would help to establish a financial compensation program for wolf-related losses;
· landowners would be provided active assistance to reduce livestock-depredation risks;
· livestock owners could defend their livestock from wolves when attacked;
· regulated harvest of wolves could be allowed;
· FWP could manage wolf numbers and distribution.
"We can say with pride that the recommended plan is the result of a collaborative, grass-roots effort," said Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf conservation and management coordinator. "We owe the people of this state our sincerest thanks for taking the time to write letters, send e-mails and attend more than 25 community work sessions that helped to hammer out the final details in this plan."
Federal officials also gave the recommended plan a positive reception today. "Montana has done an exceptional job," said Joe Fontaine, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant wolf recovery coordinator in Helena. "Their process was open, accessible, and marked by extraordinary public participation. At first glance it appears to be a good effort, but like all of the plans, it will need additional review."
Hagener characterized public participation in the process as, "vocal, yet focused, and intense, yet civil" and once again called for Congressional help in funding the plan that will annually cost the state between $913,000 and $954,000. "We'll need significant financial help from Congress to fulfill our national responsibilities," Hagener said.
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. Federal officials and independent wolf experts will evaluate each state's wolf management plan and legal framework to ensure that the three states do in fact have adequate regulations to prevent wolves from becoming threatened or endangered again.
All three state plans are now complete, but it could be at least a year before the gray wolf is actually removed from the federal endangered species list. If the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population could not be delisted due to delays in other state-planning efforts or litigation, FWP, based on the "contingency" alternative presented in the final EIS, could seek an agreement with federal managers to employ some of the recommended plan while the wolf-delisting process works it way through the final federal administrative steps or legal challenges.
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, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Since then, wolves have expanded in number and distribution throughout the federally designated Northern Rocky Mountain Recovery Area in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. An estimated 660 wolves, in about 80 packs with 43 of those qualifying as breeding pairs, inhabited the northern Rockies recovery area at the end of 2002. Federal officials estimated that 183 wolves, in 35 packs, and about 16 breeding pairs, inhabited Montana.The final Montana Wolf Conservation and Management Plan EIS, and related wolf management information, are available via FWP's website at: www.fwp.state.mt.us. Click on Montana Wolf Management in the Hot Topics box. To request a copy of the final EIS, call 406-444-2612.