Lawsuit seeks to halt Montana’s wolf hunting season

Groups argue Montana’s way of counting wolves is unscientific, unproven and unreliable

By: - November 11, 2022 4:26 pm

A gray wolf (Photo by MacNeil Lyons/United States Fish and Wildlife, Midwest Region via Flickr/CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Two groups that previously filed a lawsuit challenging the way the State of Montana manages wolves also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the wolf hunting season for several reasons, including a flawed population estimating model as well as rules that they say were adopted without public input.

The motion, filed on Thursday by Project Coyote and WildEarth Guardians, asks Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Michael McMahon to immediately halt the wolf hunting season until the full merits of the case can be considered because the groups say that a new wolf population model is scientifically suspect, and was adopted without public input.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks which manages the wolf population did not respond to requests for comment.

iPOM

Part of the challenge rests upon the way Montana estimates its wolf population. Since 2020, the lawsuit contends the department adopted a model for estimating wolf population that is based on no field research. Furthermore, the lawsuit challenges the department because it claims that the department has also failed to discuss the methods it uses so that the public can be a part of the conversation.

“This new model was not reviewed by the scientific community before the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department began using it in 2020, relies on secretive assumptions never disclosed,” it said.

Not disclosing that information is enough to violate state law, attorneys for the organization argue in their legal briefs. They said that the public must be a part of the discussion during the rule-making process, and the suit claims the public was cut out of that.

In the past two years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks used a “novel method” called “integrated population occupancy model” or “iPOM.” It estimates the population of wolves based on the availability of suitable habitat, average pack size and average territory size. However, the lawsuit said the model doesn’t take into account wolves that were killed, and is not based on any field observations.

“Experts have shown that the iPOM model is unreliable and incapable of detecting important changes in the wolf population,” the suit said. “Its analysis as well as modeling as a whole compounds uncertainty in each step by combining poor data with poor methodology.”

They claim Montana has overestimated the number of wolves in the state because the new model does not account for “known wolf mortality.”

“Montana lost 318 wolves to human-caused mortality in 2021, yet this new model paradoxically estimates that the wolf population increased over the last year,” the suit said. “Using the iPOM model in 2021, even though 387 wolves died in 2020, more than 200 deaths over the previous annual average, FWP estimated that the wolf population remained steady at 1,150 wolves.”

Cutting the public out

The groups also claim that when the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks made the decision to use the iPOM model, and when it made a decision to set the wolf hunting quotas based upon that data, the department did so violating public participation laws.

The suit also said that the state has failed to adopt and revisit its wolf management plan, essentially letting the plan that has guided the department to remain effective for nearly 20 years without updating it to reflect what the department is doing.

“This court has the authority to prohibit the use of the iPOM moel as an invalid rule amendment,” the motion said.

They argue that a 2002 wolf plan coupled with a 2004 environmental impact study require the state to make a population estimated based upon “certain physical tracking methods and a requirement that the planning document be reviewed every five years.”

They accuse the Department of ignoring its own rules and science to fit a political agenda.

“(Montana a FWP) complete failure to review their planning documents to incorporate new science has potentially significant consequences for wolves that may not be fully known or understood until the court compels the respondents to update the 2002 Wolf Plan and the 2004 EIS to incorporate the iPOM model, at a minimum,” it said.

Hurting national parks?

The lawsuit also claims that Montana’s wolf hunting regulations are also harming the state’s two national parks, Yellowstone and Glacier. Last year, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly asked Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to halt wolf hunting right outside the border of the park to no avail. Wolf hunting is also being done outside Glacier.

The lawsuit contends that the National Parks Organic Act, a piece of federal law, prohibits any action that would adversely affect the parks’ ability to manage their resources.

This lawsuit asks whether harming wolves that spend 95% of their life inside the border of federal national parks is a violation of the act.

“Under conflict preemption principles, a state law that stands as an obstacle to or substantially interferes with the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of a federal law or regulatory objective is preempted, and thus void,” it said. “When wolves that occupy  territory within Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park are killed in accordance with state hunting laws because they travel outside park borders, the wolves who die and the ecosystems of the national parks in which they live are directly and negatively impacted.”

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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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