Date of this Version
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, January 2002
The State of Montana recognizes the gray wolf as a native species and will integrate wolves as a valuable part of our wildlife heritage. Since 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has managed wolves as an endangered species in Montana, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wolves are likely to be removed from the endangered species list within 3-5 years. Upon delisting, management authority for wolves will return to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP). MFWP recognizes and accepts the challenges, responsibilities, and benefits of a restored wolf population. Managing gray wolves will not be easy, but wolf restoration is fundamentally consistent with Montana’s history of wildlife conservation. Long-term persistence of wolves in Montana depends on carefully balancing the complex biological, social, economic, and political aspects of wolf management.
State laws and administrative rules become the primary regulatory and legal mechanisms guiding management. Upon delisting, the gray wolf will automatically be classified as a species “in need of management.” MFWP and the MFWP Commission will establish the regulatory framework to manage the species thereafter. This Plan provides the foundation for wolf conservation and management upon delisting and describes a spectrum of management activities that maintain viable populations of wolves and their prey, resolve wolf-human and wolf-livestock conflicts, and gain the support of people with diverse interests. Much of it is based on the comments and recommendations of a diverse 12-member citizens group, the Montana Wolf Management Advisory Council, and an Interagency Technical Committee. MFWP intends to honor the diverse perspectives and interests of our citizens and the national public. The State will consider a spectrum of interests in designing and implementing a balanced, responsive program that recognizes the opportunities and addresses the challenges faced by people directly affected by wolves.
Wolves will be integrated and sustained in suitable habitats within complex management settings. The wolf program will be based on principles of adaptive management. Management strategies and conflict resolution tools will be more conservative as the number of packs decreases, approaching the legal minimum. In contrast, management strategies become more liberal as the number of packs increases. Ultimately, the status of the wolf population itself identifies the appropriate management strategies. Fifteen packs will be used as the trigger to change management, not as a minimum or maximum number of wolves “allowed” in Montana. MFWP does not administratively declare an upper limit or maximum number of individuals of any wildlife species in the state in the sense of a “cap.” Instead, MFWP identifies population objectives that are based on landowner tolerance, habitat conditions, social factors, and biological considerations. Wildlife populations are then managed according to the objectives and current population status, using an of array management tools.
Wolf distribution in Montana, as for other species, will ultimately be defined by the interaction of the species ecological requirements and human tolerance, not through artificial delineations that are administratively determined. Social acceptance of wolves transcends the boundaries of geography, land ownership, or land use designations just like a wolf pack territory boundary physically transcends them, too. An adaptive approach will help MFWP implement its wolf program over the range of social acceptance values now and in the future. Sensitivity towards and prompt resolution of conflict where and when it develops is an important condition of not administratively capping wolf numbers or defining distribution.
Ultimately, wolf distribution will probably encompass western Montana because of the predominance of public lands as compared to eastern Montana. Wolves will be encouraged on large contiguous blocks of public land, managed primarily as backcountry areas or national parks where there is the least potential for conflict, particularly with livestock. Wolf packs in areas of interspersed public and private lands will be managed in ways similar to other free-ranging wildlife in Montana and within the constraints of the biological and social characteristics, the physical attributes of the environment, land ownership, and land uses. Some agency discretion and flexibility will be exercised by necessity to accommodate the unique attributes of each pack, its history, the site-specific characteristics of its home range, landowner preferences, or other factors that cannot be reasonably predicted at this time. Management flexibility will be crucial in addressing all of the public interests that surround wolves.
On a broad scale, ungulate distribution and human settlement patterns largely define wolf habitat. MFWP ungulate programs link habitat and population management through sustained public hunting to achieve ungulate population objectives. In this way, MFWP takes an important habitat need of wolves into consideration. Our work, along with the amount of land held in public ownership and adequate legal protections, provides long-term habitat availability for wolves. Federal land management agencies are increasingly managing lands from an ecosystem-level perspective, considering all components and functional relationships. Yellowstone and Glacier national parks function as refuges at opposite ends of the geographic extent of wolf distribution in the northern Rockies. The network of public lands in western Montana, central Idaho, and northwest Wyoming facilitates connectivity between the sub-populations. The legal protections and public outreach described in this plan help ensure the integrity of wolf movement and occupancy of habitats between refuges.
Wolf population management will include the full range of tools from non-lethal to lethal and will incorporate public outreach, conservation education, law enforcement, and landowner relations. Wolves do not exist in isolation from their environment, nor should an effective management program isolate wolves from their environment. Management actions will be evaluated in light of prevailing conditions or extenuating circumstances. Wolf populations will fluctuate as a result of management actions, natural mortality, legal harvest, illegal take, wolf productivity, and ungulate population fluctuations. If there are fewer than 15 wolf packs in the state, management tools are primarily non-lethal, particularly in back country settings and for public lands near national parks. Examples of non-lethal techniques include monitoring wolf locations using radio telemetry, changes in livestock husbandry practices, harassment, relocation, or attempts to modify wolf behavior. A minimum of 15 packs is required to use more liberal management tools, including lethal methods to resolve wolf-livestock, wolf-human conflicts, or concern over a localized prey population in light of the combined effects of predation and environmental factors.