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GUEST OPINION

Lizzy Pennock and Michelle Lute: Montana’s wolf policies are finally, and rightly, getting taken to court

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Yellowstone wolf

A female wolf trots down a road in Yellowstone National Park in December 2021. So far this hunting and trapping season, 24 wolves known to park officials have been killed in surrounding states.

The general rifle hunting season opened recently across Montana. Thousands of hunters began pursuing elk and deer with the intention of putting meat in their freezer, hunting with a reverence for the wildlife they are pursuing. But there is another hunt going on, void of respect and with no purpose but to kill. So we sued.

WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote sued the State of Montana, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP), and the Fish and Wildlife Commission because the state’s extreme anti-wolf hunting and trapping policies violate the law, the state constitution, and the public trust.

We sued because the laws and regulations currently governing wolf management are clearly not based on science and thus do not provide an adequate foundation for conserving this iconic Montana species.

We sued because the state’s wolf ‘management’ is based on a 20-year-old, legally invalid wolf management plan. The science of wolf conservation has developed significantly since 2002, yet, for the second year in a row, the state will allow nearly half of the wolf population to be killed while its management plan is 20 years behind. Wolf managers in Montana illegally relied on the outdated plan to set the current quota and hunting regulations.

Recent wolf laws and policies also violate the state constitution, which protects wildlife as a public trust resource for all — not just the minority seeking to kill wolves indiscriminately. Moreover, the anti-wolf legislation interferes with federal interests in our iconic national parks and on other federal lands by failing to protect wolves that live mostly in national parks, like Yellowstone.

When the state took over wolf management, Montanans were promised that MFWP would manage wolves like other wildlife. But over the past two years, MFWP and the Commission have unabashedly left ethical and science-based management behind. When we compare wolf hunting with elk and deer hunting, the difference is clear. Montana’s elk and deer hunting rules do not allow the use of bait, traps, snares, artificial lights, infra-red lights, or night hunting. Nor may a single hunter kill up to 20 ungulates in a season. Aside from the rules, wolf hunting, unlike the majority of elk and deer hunting, is not for subsistence. It is trophy hunting — thrill killing — nothing more and so much less than what Montana’s wildlife and people deserve.

The small subset of Montana’s hunters who trophy hunt and trap wolves do not represent the majority of hunters or Americans. Yet this tyranny of minority interests, representing the political ideologies of a few extreme Montana politicians, are the driving force behind the state’s wolf ‘management’ for the past two seasons. Montanans can no longer rely on MFWP for sound, science-based wildlife management.

When science and ethics lose their place in wildlife management, we all lose. We are already losing species somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times natural baseline extinction rates. Allowing the unjustified slaughter of wolves motivated by political extremism and hatred is indefensible, short-sighted, and threatens the health of our ecosystems and public interests. Science and indigenous knowledge have taught us that when we slaughter apex carnivores like wolves, which have outsized benefits across our communities, it hurts us all. The minority culls wolves in Montana to the detriment of the many hunters who appreciate a fair chase and hunt for subsistence, as well as wildlife lovers, viewers, and outdoor recreationists who revel in the knowledge that they share the landscape with species who have lived here since time immemorial.

With this lawsuit, we seek not only to save wolves but to save ourselves and the Last Best Place.

Lizzy Pennock, J.D. is the carnivore coexistence advocate for WildEarth Guardians. Michelle Lute, Ph.D. is the carnivore conservation director for Project Coyote.

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