Montana group sues over public records related to wolf hunting

Wolves of the Rockies alleges FWP is violating right to know

By: - March 30, 2022 5:06 pm

A Yellowstone wolf (Courtesy NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

An environmental nonprofit focused on preserving wolf populations in the northern Rockies is suing Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks as part of a public records dispute, the organization said.

Attorneys for Wolves of the Rockies wrote in a complaint filed in Lewis and Clark County last week that FWP has failed to respond to a series of six records requests filed between August of last year and January 2022, each seeking different information but generally focusing on the development of new wolf hunting regulations following legislation passed in the 2021 session. FWP typically does not comment on pending litigation.

The suit alleges that FWP’s lack of prompt response to the requests represents a violation of the constitutional right to know, and it asks for the court to compel the wildlife regulator to “expeditiously” respond to the requests.

According to the suit, Marc Cooke, the organization’s president, first sent a records request to FWP last August seeking communication and notes between a pair of game wardens that involve Dalton Thomas Tamcke and Justin Peterson, two men who were cited for illegally shooting gray wolves from a helicopter on private land near Wisdom last March. FWP did not respond or provide an estimate of costs, the suit says.

The same is allegedly true, the suit says, for another request from Wolves of the Rockies sent last September for FWP commission meeting agendas, proposals and other information dating back to 2008, as it is for a request sent later that month seeking communications between commissioners related to the adoption of new rules expanding the means of hunting and trapping wolves.

And, “in an effort to obtain information related to the 2021 harvest,” WOTR sought completed copies of wolf harvest registration forms from the 2021 hunting season — again, according to the suit, with no response from the agency. FWP and WOTR were in brief contact about the timeline to receive the responsive information related to these requests at the end of last year, but the documents still did not materialize, attorneys for Wolves of the Rockies wrote.

2022 March FOIA Litagation MTFWP

In January, the organization sent two additional public records requests: one for the names of individuals who had donated to predator control efforts in Montana, and another for records related to any violations of hunting regs by Swan Mountain Outfitters, which was founded by FWP Commissioner Pat Tabor, an appointee of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. Tabor was grilled about citations he received while working as an outfitter during his nomination hearing last year but countered that the citations were dismissed before going to court. WOTR contends that FWP never responded to the requests and never provided a reason why.

The lawsuit is the second at least partially related to the adoption of the new wolf hunting regulations last year. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted new rules prompted by GOP-backed bills passed in the 2021 session calling for a more aggressive approach to reducing predator populations in the state, allowing for night hunting on private land, expanding the trapping season and more. Wolves of the Rockies and Trap Free Montana sued FWP last December, alleging that certain changes enshrined in rule were made without proper public participation. Environmental groups in general have attacked the new rules as part of a “war on wolves” across the West and have called for renewed federal protections in the northern Rockies. The suit is ongoing.

The new regulations, which included the removal of restrictive quotas for wolf in management units near Yellowstone National Park, did lead to a precipitous decline in the population of so-called “Yellowstone wolves.” However, the amount of wolves killed statewide in the 2021 season — 273 — is actually lower than the record number killed in 2020, or the numbers killed in the 2019 and 2018 seasons.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.