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Judge prepares to rule on Montana wolf hunting lawsuit

Junction Butte Pack photographed from a fixed-wing during wolf study
NPS / Dan Stahler
Posted at 7:13 AM, Nov 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-29 09:13:30-05

HELENA - Environmental groups and the state of Montana made their case on Monday in a legal fight over whether to allow new rules on wolf hunting to move forward.

Earlier this month, District Court Judge Chris Abbott issued a temporary restraining order, suspending Montana’s regulations that expanded wolf hunting and trapping.

In a hearing at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse Monday, he heard testimony as he considered whether to issue a preliminary injunction after his order expires Tuesday afternoon.

The groups WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote sued Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in October, claiming the state hadn’t done enough to justify increasing wolf harvesting.

FWP estimates there are about 1,100 wolves living in Montana. In 2021, the Montana Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a series of bills directing changes to wolf management.

One, Senate Bill 314, established the Legislature’s intent to “reduce the wolf population in this state to a sustainable level, but not less than the number of wolves necessary to support at least 15 breeding pairs.”

The new laws also allowed the use of snares to catch wolves and gave the Fish and Wildlife Commission the power to extend the wolf trapping season.

The commission adopted regulations last year and this year that implemented the changes. Their rules for 2021 established quotas for wolf harvesting based on broad regions of the state, allowing a total of up to 450 wolves to be taken.

FWP reports a total of 273 wolves were killed by hunters and trappers during the 2021-22 season. Twenty one of those came from two management areas bordering the north edge of Yellowstone National Park.

This year, after park leaders and wildlife advocates raised concerns about the number of wolves killed from the park’s packs, the commission kept the regional quotas but established a quota of six wolves for the area bordering Yellowstone.

The plaintiffs asked Abbott to block wolf harvesting altogether until the state reviewed its wolf management plan. He declined to go that far, but did give the order to temporarily return to the pre-2021 quotas around national parks — allowing two wolves to be taken in an area bordering Glacier and one each in the two management units bordering Yellowstone.

Because one wolf was already taken in one of the Yellowstone units, that area is currently closed to wolf harvesting. Abbott’s order also blocked the use of snares and limited each person to taking five wolves per season.

Abbott Wolf Hearing
Plaintiffs' attorney Jessica Blome and Montana FWP chief legal counsel Sarah Clerget address District Court Judge Chris Abbott at a hearing in Helena on whether to allow the state's new wolf hunting rules to move forward, Nov. 28, 2022.

During Monday’s hearing, the plaintiffs argued the state’s decision to increase wolf quotas was based on models that may be overestimating the number of wolves in Montana.

FWP is now using what it calls an “integrated patch occupancy model,” (IPOM), to estimate wolf populations. It bases population numbers on the total amount of territory wolves cover in the state, divided by the average territory each wolf pack occupies, multiplied by the number of wolves in an average pack.

The IPOM, which is an updated version of an earlier model called POM, gives wolf population figures that are typically higher by hundreds.

Plaintiffs said increased hunting and trapping could have significant impacts on the sustainability of the wolf population, especially around Yellowstone. They said the state should update its management plan so they can account for the latest research about the impact hunting has on wolf populations.

“That process would have held the state accountable to the broad public’s interpretation and analysis of that data, of those management policies, of that methodology,” said Francisco Santiago-Ávila, Midwest science & conservation manager for Project Coyote. “And also during that process, the state would have needed to directly respond to public inquiry on these matters and address public concerns such as the ones that we’ve been bringing.”

Witnesses for the state defended the updated model. Justin Gude, FWP’s wildlife research & technical services bureau chief, said IPOM was simply an adjustment to POM, which had been used for years under the existing management plan.

He said the new model allowed for different pack territories and sizes in different parts of the state, to account for field researchers’ belief that POM had actually been undercounting wolves.

“We had some years, especially in Northwest Montana, where the minimum counts – despite the fact that we were no longer even able to keep up with all of the packs – the count of the number of packs was higher than the POM estimate of the number of packs,” he said. “So we had to correct for that fact.”

Gude said individually counting all wolves in Montana is no longer realistic because of the size of the population, the large areas they cover and the limited availability of staff.

In their written arguments, the state’s attorneys also noted that the commission had restored a stricter quota around Yellowstone compared to last year’s regulations, which had not been challenged.

Abbott did not make any immediate decision after the all-day hearing, but he is expected to issue a ruling Tuesday, ahead of the temporary restraining order expiring.