(Daily Montanan) Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines wrote a letter this week to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calling a federal judge’s decision to limit the state’s wolf trapping season in grizzly bear territory one that “weaponizes” the Endangered Species Act.

In the letter, he called on the USFWS “to expeditiously complete” the 12-month review of whether it should delist grizzly bears in two ecosystems in Montana, though the yearlong review was announced at the beginning of February. Grizzly bears are currently classified as a threatened species in the Lower 48.

“The litigation uses the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the current listed status of grizzly bears as a wedge to block the state from implementing science-based wolf trapping regulations,” Daines wrote to USFWS Director Martha Williams. “This weaponization of the ESA is not serving the intended end of recovering species, but rather alienates state and local partners who are best positioned to make positive gains for wildlife.”

On Nov. 21, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ordered that the state’s wolf trapping season be limited to Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 in hunting Regions 1-5 and in Hill, Blaine and Phillips counties because he said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the wolf trapping season had shown grizzly bears could be caught in wolf traps, which would be considered an illegal “take” under ESA protections for the animal.

The conservation groups that had sued over the trapping season, which originally was to start on a floating date sometime between Nov. 27 and Dec. 31 and run through March 15, argued that some grizzly bears will still be out of their dens if the season started too early and ran into March, increasing the likelihood of them potentially being trapped. Molloy agreed.

“Grizzly bears are moving into areas of Western and Central Montana … and are more active outside of their dens during the shoulder seasons due to climate change,” he wrote in the order. “Therefore, it is reasonably certain that more grizzly bears in Montana will be out and about during the time period and in the locations that wolf trapping is permitted under Montana’s 2023 regulations.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks appealed the decision that night and opened wolf trapping season in all other areas on the first day of the floating start, Nov. 27. Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a statement saying the decision “tramples the rights of trappers while a few environmental extremists abuse the ESA and ride the gravy train of judicial activism.”

Gianforte also cited information the state had presented in its case to Molloy that there had been no reported incidental captures of grizzly bears in wolf traps in a decade, though the plaintiffs in the case had argued there were incidental takes that were not reported.

Daines’ letter takes a similar stance as Gianforte’s statement. The headline for his announcement of the letter called Molloy’s ruling an “activist” one, and he was critical of environmental groups that have gone to courts seeking to block state efforts to allow hunters and trappers to target more large predators.

“Allowing serial litigants to continue to use the listing of grizzlies under the ESA to block everything from wolf management to forest management is irresponsible and hurts our Montana way of life,” Daines said in a statement. “It’s past time to allow the state of Montana to use common sense to manage our wildlife populations.”

Most of Daines’ letter reiterates what the Gianforte administration has said about why it wants grizzlies delisted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. They contend that grizzly populations in those ecosystems have fully recovered, the legislature has now set up a framework for state management of grizzlies, the state has set up a management agreement with Idaho and Wyoming, and has proven its ability to manage predators with its wolf trapping policies and regulations.

“Two years of wolf trapping under this policy show that the bear specialists at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks protect grizzlies from incidental take,” Daines wrote. “The evidence shows that Montana’s wolf trapping regulations are carefully crafted to protect grizzlies, which only reinforces that the state is ready and able to handle the management of both species.”

A spokesperson for the USFWS did not immediately respond to an emailed question about the current timeline for the agency’s determination on the grizzly review and a request for comment on Daines’ letter Friday.

In February, USFWS said while a draft initial review showed Montana and Wyoming had shown a commitment to grizzly recovery and conflict prevention, a Montana state law allowing people to kill a grizzly actively attacking livestock was of concern and needed to be evaluated. The state is still in the process of finalizing grizzly management administrative rules.

“We will fully evaluate these and all other potential threats, and associated state regulatory mechanisms, in detail when we conduct the status assessments and make the 12-month findings,” USFWS said at the time.

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