Lawsuit challenges gray wolf harvest near Yellowstone National Park

By: - June 17, 2021 5:40 pm

A gray wolf (Getty Images).

A dispute about the wolf population around Yellowstone National Park and the size of elk herds has gotten chippy, as at least one Fish Wildlife Parks Commissioner alleged intentional pain and suffering, while an outdoor group claims the commissioners who are now in the minority are using legal stall tactics to appease out-of-state environmental groups.

The Outdoor Heritage Coalition along with William H. Hoppe sued The Montana FWP and the commissioners for failing to follow its own policies about hunting gray wolves. They said that if the statewide number of wolves exceeds more than 15 breeding pairs, the management plan calls for a “harvest season.”

Matthew Monforton, who represents Hoppe and the coalition, said that as of 2017 — the most recent data — there were 124 wolf packs, 63 breeding pairs and “the minimum number of wolves was 633.”

The suit claims that the state is not following its own rules by disallowing more wolves to be taken from around the park, in “Wolf Management Units” 313 and 316.

“The harvest quotas for WMUs 313 and 316 serve no legitimate purpose,” the suit contends, alleging that the commission, which had been previously served by appointees from Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, had caved to public pressure from individuals and groups, rather than following the department’s own rules.

The suit claims the state not managing wolves has “significantly reduced the numbers of large ungulates, including elk, available for harvest by hunters.” Hoppe, an outfitter, said, the loss of elk has hurt his livelihood.

Outdoor Heritage is asking a Park County judge to rule that the FWP must follow the guidelines it established and allow more wolf hunting in the two wolf-management areas.

The issue may quickly move from the courtroom to the board room, though, as the FWP commissioners are scheduled to meet next Thursday to discuss new wolf hunting laws enacted by the Legislature, which may render the lawsuit moot. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, appointed a slate of new commissioners that largely replaced all but Pat Byorth, who will likely be in the minority.

A winding legal road

Though the case appears straightforward, a group suing a government body, its pathway to next week’s possible decision is a demonstration of just how contentious a lawsuit in Montana involving wildlife, hunting and land near a national park can be.

The original lawsuit was filed against a largely different slate of FWP commissioners who had been appointed by Bullock. In February, Rebecca Dockter, chief legal counsel for the FWP, filed notice with the Park County court that she was representing the FWP and the commissioners.

However, Commissioner Byorth and then-commissioner Shane Colton retained their own attorneys, countersuing Outdoor Heritage Coalition and Hoppe, claiming that they were being wrongly sued both in their capacity as commissioners and personally.

Monforton told The Daily Montanan that holding a government official, like a FWP commissioner, personally responsible for a decision they made in their capacity as a commissioner isn’t even legally possible in a declaratory judgment, raising the possibility that hiring private attorneys was a way to stall or obstruct a wolf hunt.

Meanwhile, Jory Ruggiero, representing Byorth, responded that nowhere in the original lawsuit did it say the commissioners were being sued only in their official capacities, and he believes that was intentional to exert power on the commissioners.

“Outdoor Heritage Council deliberately left Byorth listed individually in (the complaint) in order to put pressure on Byorth and other commissioners to vote the way that OHC wanted them to vote on wolf regulations,” a response filed on Thursday said. “OHC amended its complaint to name Byorth solely in his official capacity, only after OHC learned Byorth might file an abuse of process counterclaim.”

Byorth and his attorneys have dropped the counterclaim and the suit names only the FWP and the commissioners in their official capacity.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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