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Judge issues immediate temporary changes to Montana's wolf hunting, trapping seasons

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A state district court judge temporarily rolled back parts of Montana's wolf hunting and trapping regulations on Tuesday, pending a hearing later this month.

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott issued a temporary restraining order setting parts of Montana’s wolf regulations back to what was in place in 2020, but stopped short of agreeing with two environmental groups seeking a complete halt to hunting and trapping wolves in the state.

The order, effective Tuesday, disallows the use of snares to trap wolves and reduces the maximum bag limit from 20 — 10 hunting and 10 trapping — to five. The order also restores wolf management units and low quotas adjacent to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote, a project of Earth Island Institute, filed the lawsuit in late October against Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. The groups asked for a temporary restraining order last week while the case is decided.

Michelle Lute with Project Coyote applauded the court’s decision Tuesday.

“Folks across the world are collectively celebrating that Yellowstone's wolves are now mercifully safe,” Lute said in a statement. “This temporary restraining order is a critical cessation of the irreparable harm being waged on wolves and wildlands. It tells you how egregiously unscientific and unethical Montana’s war on wolves was — and would continue to be — if it weren’t for the judicial branch defending law, science, and reason. Today, Montana’s wolves and America’s ideals won an important battle, but the war rages on.”

The groups claim the state has failed to timely review its 2002 wolf management plan, meaning subsequent regulations based on the plan fall short of state law. The lawsuit also alleges that killing wolves that venture outside national parks disrupts management of park wolves, causing a conflict with federal law.

Laws passed in 2021 by the Legislature and subsequent regulations that direct reduction in Montana’s wolf population violate a legal principle called the “public trust doctrine,” which in this case dictates that the state manages wildlife for the benefit of the public, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit largely challenges Montana’s use of “patch occupancy modeling” to estimate wolf populations as an illegal amendment to the 2002 plan. The groups argue that the use of the model is prone to over-estimating populations and that its use over field-based methods should have gone through a public process. The groups also argue that the plan has become “stale” and that FWP has failed to conduct required reviews of the plan every five years.

Most recently the model estimated 1,141 wolves in Montana — a number that is in line with recent years. Hunters and trappers killed the fewest wolves last hunting season in the last four years despite increased methods of take and longer seasons, with trappers pointing to difficult trapping conditions and a later start date in western Montana for the decline. Wolf advocates believe the low number suggests populations are smaller than the model estimates.

This year’s quota for wolves is 456, although hunters and trappers have never come close to that number in past seasons, including those that had no statewide quota.

FWP Director Hank Worsech defended the state’s wolf management on Tuesday.

“We have a healthy and stable population of wolves in Montana,” he said in a statement. “We’ve proven we can manage wolves across the state and will continue to do so. We will comply with the judge’s order and look forward to the opportunity to defend good science and management strategies.”

In 2021 the Legislature and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a variety of new laws and regulations aimed at decreasing Montana’s wolf population. Those included the use of snares, extended seasons, higher bag limits and the removal of quotas near the national parks.

Hunting and trapping of wolves near Yellowstone garnered international attention in the season that followed as a larger number of wolves associated with the park were killed. This year, the commission adopted a quota of six wolves for the two units, now combined into one, near Yellowstone. Abbott’s order restores the old units and lower quotas, meaning the one wolf killed this year in unit 313 has closed the season while the order remains in place.

“Based on the face of plaintiffs’ filings, they have made colorable arguments that the state’s current wolf management practices may violate state or federal law,” the judge wrote. “… Plaintiffs have also colorably shown that several 2021 legislative enactments and implementing regulations, particularly regarding extended trapping practices and lifting quotas in areas near Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park may interfere with federal authority to manage wildlife in the Parks and on federal lands.”

Abbott disagreed with the request from the groups to completely stop Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping season. The hunting season began in September while trapping is scheduled to begin as early as Nov. 28, although it opens under a floating date based on grizzly bear denning.

Abbott instead decided to restore some regulations that were in effect in 2020. He will consider whether to extend or alter the halt via a preliminary injunction following arguments by the groups and the state on Nov. 28 in Helena.

“Plaintiffs want the complete cessation of wolf hunting and trapping. The court’s charge at this stage, however, is simply to maintain the status quo,” the judge wrote.

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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State Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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