Judge allows wolf season to go ahead while lawsuit continues
(Missoula Current) A Helena judge will allow Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping season to proceed unchanged while a lawsuit works its way through the courts.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Christopher Abbott decided against placing an injunction on Montana's wolf season after hearing oral arguments Monday on whether to stop the season.
In his 26-page decision, Abbott addressed the various arguments that took most of Monday to hear. Although wolf advocates didn’t show enough harm would occur to wolves to justify the injunction, Abbott said they “raised significant policy considerations and presented several arguments that could potentially prevail.”
Wolf advocates, hunters and trappers across the state had watched and waited Monday into Tuesday for the next foot to fall in the lawsuit that two environmental groups - WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote - filed against Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the FWP commission at the end of October. The groups assert that liberalized wolf hunting and trapping rules passed by the 2021 Legislature aren’t science-based and interfere with efforts of national parks and other federal agencies to manage wolves.
On Nov. 16, Abbott agreed to a two-week temporary restraining order that put some limits on the wolf hunting and trapping season. Displeased, Gov. Greg Gianforte reacted on Twitter.
“The legislature makes laws, the Fish and Wildlife Commission sets rules based on both those laws and science, and FWP implements those rules. Unfortunately, another activist judge overstepped his bounds today to align with extreme activists,” Gianforte tweeted.
With the restraining order set to expire on Tuesday, Abbott scheduled a hearing at 9 a.m. on Monday to debate the need for a permanent injunction on wolf hunting and trapping. The hearing lasted most of the day, and the parties went home to await the judge’s decision on Tuesday.
On Monday, FWP announced the opening of wolf trapping season because the restraining order only reduced the wolf bag limit to five and prohibited the use of snares. As of Tuesday, snares are once again legal and the bag limit returns to 10.
Other methods approved by the 2021 Legislature include shooting wolves over bait, and hunting at night on private lands with night-vision technology. Trapping still isn’t allowed in occupied grizzly bear habitat until Dec. 31.
“We are devastated that the court has allowed countless more wolves—including Yellowstone wolves—to be killed under the unscientific laws and regulations we are challenging,” said Lizzy Pennock, WildEarth Guardians carnivore coexistence advocate. “We will keep fighting for Montana’s wolves in the courtroom while our case carries on and outside the courtroom in every way possible.”
So far, hunters have killed 69 wolves this season in Montana. The FWP commission approved a quota of 456.
Abbott wrote that it was not the job of the court to set Montana policy.
“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. “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 Constitution and statute.”
In the meantime, the Center for Biological Diversity announced on Tuesday that it had filed a lawsuit accusing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of failing to update its 1992 wolf recovery plan. In February, a California federal judge restored endangered species protection to the wolf across the U.S., except for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. But the 30-year-old wolf recovery plan focuses primarily on Minnesota with little or no mention of the West Coast or states like Colorado where wolves are being reintroduced.
In August, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to rule on whether wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming should also be listed. Wolves in the Northern Rockies lost federal protections through a congressional legislative rider in 2011. In September 2021, the agency issued an initial finding that high levels of human-caused mortality may be threatening wolves and that the federal protection of the Northern Rockies populations may be warranted.
It is with this August lawsuit that the fate of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies may be decided.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.