Groups sue Montana alleging FWP fails to count wolves accurately

By: - October 31, 2022 4:47 pm

Gray wolves ( Photo by Steve Jurvetson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services | Creative Commons).

Two groups have sued the State of Montana, specifically the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, for ignoring science and adopting a wolf management plan that fails to protect gray wolves as required since Montana and Idaho took over state management.

Wildearth Guardians and Project Coyote filed the suit on Thursday in Lewis and Clark District Court in Helena, alleging that the state legislature has adopted aggressive wolf management rules based on faulty science, and asks Judge Michael McMahon to suspend the hunting rules and update a 2002 management plan that hasn’t been modified since.

 The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department said through an official spokesman that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

In advance of the 2022-’23 hunting season, the lawsuit argues the population estimates for Montana wolves are based upon an inaccurate and unscientific methodology. The groups also said that since gray wolves lost their federal protection in 2011, state officials have not updated their wolf management plan in years.

“Relying on an outdated and scientifically-deficient wolf management plan, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission have authorized the killing of 456 wolves this coming winter, constituting roughly 40% of the state’s wolf population,” the lawsuit said.

The groups said that Montana adopted a 2002 wolf management plan, and the state, as part of the plan, should revisit it every five years. However, the groups said that the state has never held up its end of the wolf plan, and it hasn’t been updated since it was released. One of the remedies the lawsuit seeks is for the court to order the state to update and complete the 20-year-old plan.

Furthermore, the lawsuit criticizes the state for using a computer system, iPOM, to model wolf populations.

“Experts have shown (iPOM) is unreliable and incapable of detecting important changes in the wolf population,” the lawsuit said. “The iPOM model does not appear in the 2002 Wolf Plan, which requires other methods of tracking wolf populations. Nevertheless, (the state) disregarded the provisions of the 2022 Wolf Plan to use the iPOM model to estimate Montana’s wolf population according to the availability of suitable wolf habitat and opportunistic hunter observations, rather than on-the-ground track counts or observations by trained biologists.”

The groups bringing the lawsuit also cite research by Montana State University Professor Scott Creel in which he said the “iPOM model uses inadequate data and unreliable methods at each step of its analysis.”

“I am aware of no examples other than Montana iPOM suggesting the population size can be estimated reliably in the absence of direct demographic data and/or population counts,” Creel wrote.

Wolf hunting became such a cause for concern around the border of Yellowstone National Park, that park superintendent Cam Sholly wrote to Gov. Greg Gianforte asking him to curb or close the hunt due to huge losses sustained by the packs of wolves in and around Yellowstone.

“In reality, the population of wolves in Montana is likely much lower, so MFWP is actually authorizing a much larger decrease in the wolf population for the coming season, which could cause long-term harm to the viability and sustainability of wolves in Montana,” the suit said.

The lawsuit alleges that in addition to not following its own state laws for managing wolves, Montana has also violated the state’s constitution and interferes with federal laws, including the National Park Service Organic Act.

“While the rest of the world is trying to reverse our current course causing the mass extinction of life, Montana seems hellbent on flaming the proverbial fires,” said Michelle Lute, who is the wolf conservation and carnivore conservation director in Project Coyote, one of the groups who filed the lawsuit. “Science and indigenous knowledge have already taught us that we slaughter wolves to our own detriment. Wolves are apex predators with outsized benefits across our communities.

“By regulating prey behavior to prevent overbrowsing, they are ecosystems guardians and increase the diversity and abundance of myriad species.”

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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.