Edvard Pettersson

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday took a skeptical view of an injunction issued by a federal judge last year, which prohibited wolf trapping in a broad swath of Western Montana outside of a narrow timeframe from Janunary 1 to February 15.

The three-judge panel appeared puzzled by the injunction, which seemingly ignored the state's scientific determination of where grizzly bears can be found. Conservation groups, though, stressed that grizzly populations were growing and their habitats expanding, especially as Montana sees warmer winters.

The injunction aimed to protect grizzlies, which are at risk of getting maimed by the wolf traps. And yet in the end, the order prohibited trapping in a much larger part of the state than what plaintiffs had even asked for.

Montana appealed the November ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, who issued the injunction at the request of two conservation groups. The groups claimed that the state's plan to allow recreational wolf trapping as early as the first Monday after Thanksgiving — and continuing through March 15 — could cause harm to endangered grizzly bears who weren't hibernating in their dens.

The state claims that Molloy did not adequately explain his reasoning. It says the judge created "out of whole cloth" a definition of Western Montana that went beyond what the conservationists had sought.

Montana permits recreational trapping of grey wolves, which aren't endangered, to control the population. At the same time, it limits wolf trapping in areas where it knows grizzly bears live, except for a limited period during the winter when the bears are in their dens.

In court on Friday, lawyers for state stressed its success at keeping track of grizzly bear populations.

"Montana has successfully predicted where grizzly bears will be and when they will be there for the last decade," Assistant Attorney General Sarah Clerget told the panel. "In the 35 years since grizzly bears were listed, no grizzly bear has ever been incidentally captured in any trap of any kind outside the place where Montana said the grizzly bears would be in the estimated occupied grizzly bear range."

Tim Bechtold, an attorney for the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force and WildEarth Guardians, countered that because of increasingly warmer winters, along with the growth of the grizzly population and their territory, there was an increased risk that the charismatic bears could get caught in wolf traps.

The area that falls under the injunction against wolf trapping, Bechtold said, was essentially the area of Montana west of Billings where the state acknowledges grizzlies can be found.

The judges seemed unconvinced. "So, basically the fine mapping that counsel referred to, which apparently is now even more refined than it was before, is sort of out of the window, and we're going to declare by fiat that all this area is now prohibited," Senior Circuit Judge Richard Tallman said, referring to Clerget's explanation of how the state determines where grizzly populations reside.

The judge also appeared unpersuaded by Bechtold's position that regulations should be so stringent as to ensure not a single bear could be harmed. Tallman, a Clinton appointee, argued a similar case in Idaho had yielded what he said was a more reasonable injunction, which allowed for the possibility that one or two bears could be incidentally caught in a trap.

The appellate panel also included Circuit Judge Mark Bennett, a Donald Trump appointee, and Senior District Judge Robert Lasnik of the Western District of Washington, also a Clinton appointee. Lasnik was sitting on the panel by designation.

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