Judge rules that Montana’s wolf hunt will continue

Abbott says groups didn’t prove state wolf population would be irreparably harmed by new hunting rule

By: - November 29, 2022 7:04 pm

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

A Lewis and Clark County judge has ruled that the State of Montana’s plan to “harvest” as many as 456 wolves can proceed because two organizations which challenged the state’s wolf hunting rules were unable to prove that Montana’s wolf population would be permanently harmed by the increased hunting, which includes the use of snares.

State district court judge Christopher Abbott stopped or “dissolved” the temporary restraining order that had put the brakes on much of the state’s wolf hunting regulations after WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote raised concerns about the method the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks used to count wolves. Those groups also challenged whether the state had correctly adopted the hunting regulations or if they interfered with the federal laws governing National Parks, in this case Yellowstone and Glacier respectively.

Abbott said that none of the issues raised by the groups would likely result in irreparable harm to wolves, even if the maximum quota of 456 wolves were killed during the hunt. And Abbott pointed out that wolf hunting numbers from the previous two seasons didn’t come close to reaching that number.

However, Abbott also stressed that the one-day hearing on Monday, which addressed the issue of whether to extend the temporary restraining order, was limited to just the matter of the injunction, and was not a ruling on the merits of the case. Instead, the judge said that many of the issues raised by the groups needed to be examined further at an upcoming trial.

Organizers decried the ruling and vowed to continue the fight in court.

“We are devastated that the court has allowed countless more wolves – including Yellowstone (National Park) wolves – to be killed under the unscientific laws and regulations we are challenging,” said Lizzy Pennock, the Montana-based carnivore coexistence advocate for WildEarth Guardians.

How many wolves live in Montana?

At the heart of the challenge was the method the Montana FWP uses to count wolves. The two environmental groups said that the integrated patch occupancy model, or iPOM, is a flawed method for counting the number wolves because it only estimates the number of wolves living based on pack size and territory. They argued that without more precise counts, the State of Montana runs the risk of pegging wolf pack sizes as stable when they could be declining.

However, Abbott found that expert testimony presented on Monday demonstrated the state had continued to refine and make adjustments to the iPOM model, and that it had been reviewed by peers and others in the wildlife management community. And while Abbott said that the full merits of the program were a matter for a future trial, he noted that iPOM method was unlikely to overestimate wolf numbers so grossly as to fall below 150 wolves that are mandated by state law. Current Montana wolf population numbers estimate Montana’s population at 1,144.

Furthermore, Abbott found that while field surveys of wolf populations are no longer used by the FWP as a primary tool, they’re still used to help corroborate the iPOM estimates.

Snares and bag limits

The groups also challenged Montana’s use of snares to trap and kill wolves, as well as bag limits, which are the number of wolves an individual can kill. In 2021, the Legislature directed the FWP to allow snares to hunt wolves, as well as increasing bag limits, even despite significant public pushback on the policy.

The lawsuit, in part, challenged the use of snares as a public safety and wildlife management issue, as the groups pointed out that often “non-target” species, like pets or even endangered species can be trapped in snares by mistake.

However, Abbott pointed out that it was the Legislature, elected by the voters of Montana, which sets the hunting policy of the state, not the courts.

“Plaintiffs raise legitimate policy objections to their use. Nevertheless, the 2021 legislation unequivocally directs the state to establish a trapping season, and to allow holder of trapper licenses to use snares,” the ruling said. “Even with the high bag limit, the vast majority of successful hunters and trappers take far fewer wolves. The 20-wolf bag limit was in effect in 2021, but only one hunter took 10 wolves. The vast majority take only one.”

Montana not following its own laws

Abbott also found that Montana FWP likely has not completed a wolf management plan every five years, as it’s required. However, Abbott determined that even though the FWP lacked a “thorough, formal review” it was not enough to halt the entire wolf hunting program.

However, Abbott agreed that the state likely has not followed through with the requirement to review and update the plan. But, the remedy for not following the plan, the judge said, is not to stop all wolf hunting, rather to force the agency to review and update it.

“The court can order that relief in a year just as easily as it can today,” Abbott said.

Questions for trial

While Abbott dissolved the temporary injunction for the wolf hunt, meaning all previous rules go back into effect, he also left a judicial open door for the trial to more fully address some of WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote’s concerns.

For example, Abbott pointed to Monday’s testimony from Francisco Santiago-Avila, who raised concerns about the iPOM model.

“Avila contends that the iPOM model’s reliance on three sequential models for estimating territory occupancy tends to compound error from each model to the next, and that various assumptions built into iPOM systematically overestimate wolf populations,” the court ruling said. “This will continue to be an issue of dispute in the case… the court is not persuaded that iPOM is so unreliable or so substantially tending to overestimate wolf population that the department and the (FWP) commission’s reliance on it while this litigation pends is likely to trigger irreparable harm to wolf sustainability.”

Likewise, Abbott cautioned that the court was only considering whether to extend the restrictions on the wolf hunting, not deciding the merits of the case.

“The attention this case has garnered so far might lead one to believe the court is deciding the fate of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies today. It is not,” Abbott wrote in his conclusion. “Gray wolf management is principally a matter for the political branches; at most, this court’s role is simply to ensure those branches of government are coloring within the lines set by the Constitution and statute.”

Wolf laws challenged more broadly

Tuesday’s decision came amid a flurry of lawsuits both in Montana and abroad which are challenging both state and federal management of wolves.

On Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., challenging the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery plan, noting that it had not been updated in a decade.

Another lawsuit, filed this year, also asks a federal court to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relist wolves in Montana and Idaho after both states allowed more liberal and arguably aggressive plans to hunt wolves.

“The court recognizes the strong moral and ethical arguments persuasively advanced by Plaintiffs about the intrinsic value of wolves. The Legislature, however, has required the (Montana FWP) commission to establish hunting and trapping seasons to reduce wolf populations in Montana, suggesting the policy of the State of Montana is to permit the killing of individual wolves so long as populations remain sustainable.

“This is a matter of policy the court cannot second-guess in the absence of a demonstrates conflict with the Constitution.”

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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.