Seventy organizations are requesting Endangered Species protections for Western wolves in response to Montana’s new laws that increase wolf hunting and trapping, including the use of snares.

On Thursday, a coalition of 70 conservation, animal welfare and indigenous groups filed a formal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that wolves be relisted. They cite “inadequate regulatory mechanisms” in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and the fact that few wolves have moved out to occupy other Western states.

“Wolves remain completely absent from suitable habitats or perilously close to extinction in many western states, and the handful of states surrounding Yellowstone National Park are now driving the larger populations toward extinction — endangered species listing — by ramping up wolf killing and stripping away hunting and trapping regulations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming,” said Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project executive director. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks used to be considered a fairly responsible agency when it came to predator management. When the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population was delisted in 2011, Montana was the first state to publish a science-based wolf management plan that was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, followed by Idaho.

Wolves weren’t delisted in Wyoming until 2017 because the state did not use science-based management, allowing people to shoot wolves on sight.

But this year, with Greg Gianforte as governor, a few western Montana legislators decided to take wildlife management into their own hands instead of allowing FWP to use science and a public process.

Under the justification of needing to protect elk, Montana Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, passed a handful of bills targeting wolves, including one that lengthened the trapping season, one that allows baiting and spotlighting at night, and one that approved snares, which had previously been banned in Montana due to its inhumane method of killing and the increased probability of catching other wildlife species.

Hunters and trappers had previously killed about a third of the wolf population each year, but now that could easily exceed 50%, which could cause the population to plummet over the course of a few years. Because the methods are now in law instead of agency policy, the agency cannot stop the seasons as it could before through the commission process.

Meanwhile, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill that would allows hunters and private contractors to kill 90% or more of that state’s wolves.

As a result, the 63-page petition highlights scientific findings of multiple threats facing wolves in the West, including unregulated hunting in several states, poaching, genetic problems associated with low population levels, fragmented habitats and disease. All of these could potentially reduce populations below critical levels from which they can’t recover.

“For these reasons, the signatory organizations and our members urge you to move swiftly to protect the Western DPS of gray wolves before it is too late. There is ample scientific evidence that this species is facing significant threats throughout significant portions of its range, and wolves need Endangered Species Act protection to avoid a second extinction in the wild,” the petition concluded.

The petition starts a process that requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the situation and then issue a “90-day finding,” which indicates whether enough scientific and commercial information has been presented to justify federal protections. After that, the agency could move forward with further analysis and a final ruling.

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