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Judge denies injunction over Montana's wolf hunting, trapping regulations

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Killing Wolves

In this photo released by the National Park Service a wolf from the Wapiti Lake pack is silhouetted by a nearby hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., on Jan. 24, 2018. 

A state district court judge who had issued temporary restrictions on Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping season declined to extend those restrictions on Tuesday.

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott’s decision comes after a day-long hearing on Monday in Helena featuring testimony from both WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote, who brought the lawsuit, and the defendant, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

The suit filed in October alleges that FWP has failed to timely review its 2002 wolf management plan, that the use of a model to estimate populations illegally amended the plan without public involvement and is unreliable, and that killing wolves near national parks conflicts with federal law.

Abbott issued a temporary restraining order earlier this month in response to the lawsuit, disallowing the use of snares to trap wolves and reducing the maximum bag limit from 20 — 10 hunting and 10 trapping — to five. That order also restored wolf management units and low quotas adjacent to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. That order expired on Tuesday, restoring all regulations passed by the commission in August.

Abbott’s order acknowledges that wolves are seen by people in a variety of ways, from “admiration to abhorrence,” and that when managed well, they have positive ecological impacts and generate millions in tourism. Farmers and ranchers, meanwhile, may bear the burden of wolves and hunters have valid concerns about declines in elk and other game animals.

But Abbott, noting he was only ruling on the issue of a preliminary injunction that would restrict hunting and trapping as litigation played out, wrote that he was persuaded by testimony from the agency about the scientific rigor behind the model used to estimate wolf populations. The model, called integrated patch occupancy modeling, incorporates average pack size, territory and observations from deer and elk hunters.

“The underpinnings of the IPOM have been peer-critiqued,” the judge wrote. “Research on IPOM has generated two doctoral dissertations, has been presented to the public in numerous ways, and has been modified based on feedback from the scientific community, stakeholders and the community.”

Abbott found that the groups had not shown that proceeding with this year’s wolf season would harm populations to the extent that they would fall to federal minimums.

“Although this will continue to be an issue of dispute in the case, for today’s purposes and on today’s record, the court is not persuaded that IPOM is so unreliable or so substantially tending to overestimate wolf populations that the Department and Commission’s reliance on it while the litigation pends is likely to trigger irreparable harm to wolf sustainability,” the judge wrote.

On the issue of the wolf management plan, Abbott found that the document allows for flexibility in counting methods.

“Two overarching conclusions can be drawn,” he wrote. “First, the wolf plan plainly expects the Department to use (and at the very least consider) both traditional and new counting methods. And second, the wolf plan emphasizes not only precision, but innovation, flexibility and cost, with the latter more often winning the day as time passes and populations rebound.”

Abbott also found that the groups had not shown that quotas put in place in August near Yellowstone, as opposed to the removal of quotas last season, conflicts with federal management of wolves in the park. 

FWP began using patch occupancy modeling in 2007 to estimate populations while continuing to do physical counts. In more recent years, modeling has become the primary method of population estimate and in 2020, the agency began using IPOM, which officials testified better accounts for variations in pack and territory size.

Abbott did write that he tended to agree with the groups that FWP had failed to update the wolf plan in a timely way, but concluded that the relief sought via hunting and trapping restrictions were not warranted as litigation proceeds. A potential order to review the plan could come at a later date without immediate harm to overall wolf populations, he wrote. 

Lizzy Pennock, carnivore coexistence advocate with WildEarth Guardians, blasted the decision Tuesday.

“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,” she said in a statement. “We will keep fighting for Montana’s wolves in the courtroom while our case carries on and outside the courtroom in every way possible.”

FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon declined to comment on the case specifically, but confirmed the order restores all regulations passed by the commission in August. Information and the harvest dashboard continues to be available on the agency's website at www.fwp.mt.gov

Wolves in Montana

Most recently the model estimated 1,141 wolves in Montana — a number that is in line with recent years. Hunters and trappers killed the fewest wolves last hunting season in the last four years with 273. The statewide quota is 456 wolves, with six wolves allowed in the district north of Yellowstone.

In 2021 the Legislature and commission adopted a variety of new laws and regulations aimed at decreasing Montana’s wolf population. Those included the use of snares, extended seasons, higher bag limits and the removal of quotas near the national parks. The Legislature passed a law mandating that state wildlife officials reduce the state’s wolf population. 

Monday’s hearing

Pennock in her testimony Monday characterized Montana’s wolf laws and regulations as “eradication efforts of wolves by the state.” She testified that she was surprised that the state had not had a public process specific to its use of modeling as the method for estimating wolf populations and saying “You feel like you’re yelling into a void,” when advocating for wolves to the state and commission, which did not adopt policies her organization is advocating for.

“It seems like having an accurate model, the opportunity for the public to weigh in on it, would be imperative to wildlife management,” she said.

Pennock was challenged by Sarah Clerget, FWP’s chief legal counsel, on why public comment taken during the commission’s regulation setting process was not sufficient. Clerget also pressed Pennock on the legislative mandates that include directives for a wolf hunting and trapping season and that the state move to reduce wolf populations.

Pennock agreed that the mandates existed but said discretion could still be used, providing the example that the season could be set for one day. She replied “yes” when asked if she believed the legislative mandate to reduce populations could be met in a single day.

Michelle Lute is the Carnivore Conservation Director for Project Coyote testified on her organization’s opposition to killing wolves. That includes the use of devices such as snares as well as killing wolves near Yellowstone National Park, saying her group is working state-by-state to end trapping.

“The goals of recovery are set back every season of this egregious slaughter,” she said.

Wolf lawsuit

Lawyers for the state of Montana and wolf advocacy groups argue before Judge Christopher Abbott in the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on Monday.

Wolves have value both as individuals and larger populations in controlling prey populations and behavior, Lute said, which benefits multiple species in a healthy ecosystem. The lack of public input into the use of IPOM and an outdated wolf plan goes against American ideals such as science and democracy, she added.

Francisco Santiago-Avila, a science and conservation manager with Project Coyote, testified as an expert witness for the groups, although Clerget challenged that designation before the court. He testified that research supports nonlethal methods as more effective than lethal methods of controlling wolves and challenged the efficacy of IPOM.

Santiago-Avila cited recent trends in wolf killed in Montana, which had seen an upward trajectory over the last decade and a record of 329 wolves killed in 2020-2021. The dip to 273 wolves last season despite longer seasons and more methods of take suggests fewer wolves may be on the landscape despite IPOM showing a relatively stable population.

“The amount of wolves living in Montana right now is a huge question mark,” he testified, adding he believes poaching is not adequately accounted for.

The model is prone to over-estimating wolf populations which leads to over-aggressive quotas and regulations, Santiago-Avila said, in part citing a critique of IPOM authored by Scott Creel, a researcher from Montana State University. The wolf management plan also does not incorporate the body of science learned about the animals over the last 20 years, he said.

Under cross-examination, Santiago-Avila conceded that other factors, such as the effort put in by hunters and trappers, could account for changes in the wolf data.

Justin Gude, FWP’s Wildlife Research & Technical Services bureau chief, testified about the origins of using modeling and the process that went into its development in coordination with the University of Montana. The methodology of locating wolves in the field for “minimum counts” became less and less reliable as populations increased. Field staff, limited by time and terrain, acknowledged wolves were undercounted and the agency started to see pushback over the counts’ accuracy, he said. Other methods, such as genetic mark-and-recapture or remote cameras, also proved very time intensive and difficult over very large areas, he added.

FWP and UM developed the first iterations of the model in roughly 2007. The model incorporated average pack size and territory with observations from hunters and staff. But that model was also undercounting wolves as minimum counts and reports from field staff suggested higher numbers, Gude said.

The model continued to be refined until 2020, when a significant change came along with a new name: integrated patch occupancy model. IPOM uses models to better account for variability across the state in wolf pack numbers and territory size, Gude said. IPOM was published in a peer reviewed journal earlier this year, he said.

Because the model accounts for all wolf deaths indirectly, any wolves killed by poaching would be indirectly accounted for in the model, Gude added. Field staff also continues to do some direct field monitoring focusing primarily on pack territory and size rather than minimum counts, he said.

Cross examination from attorney Jessica Blome focused largely on the reliability of reports that minimum counts and POM were undercounting wolves.

FWP chief of staff Quentin Kujala testified that the wolf management plan was largely a guiding document and did not take away decision-making authority from either the commission or legislature. If management plans were required to be passed as rules in a lengthy process, it could have a “crippling” effect on the process and take away adaptability, he said.

The public has the opportunity provide comment annually as the commission sets regulations, he said.

“The public comment opportunity available for inclusion would be the commission’s public comment opportunity on proposed wolf season’s for the coming years,” he said.

The decision to recommend a take of about 450 wolves, or 40%, was in response to the legislative mandate that populations be reduced, Kujala said. That is not to say that populations would be reduced by 40%, using the analogy of cutting hair that then regrows as wolf reproduction would backfill some of the loss.

“We wanted to be fitting the intent of the statute, thinking of something substantive and all our math tells us (40%) is a decline we could measure,” Kujala said.

When asked about the dip in wolves killed by hunters and trappers last season, Kujala pointed to trapper effort. In the winter of 2020-2021, data showed about 4,300 trapper days in northwest Montana’s Region 1, which has the highest wolf densities. Last season that dropped to a little less than 1,800 trapper days, which accounts for each day a trapper is trapping.

Under cross examination from Blome about Kujala’s characterization of the wolf management plan as a guiding document, he said FWP is required to comply with it.

In closing, Blome said that despite the testimony, FWP has not contested that it has not reviewed the wolf plan in five-year intervals. The groups and members would be “harmed” even if one wolf was killed under the current policies.

“We would argue we don’t have to prove population decimation to prove injury,” she said.

Clerget countered that even if Abbott were to order FWP to update the plan, the use of the model dating back to 2007 does not constitute an emergency requiring an injunction barring limiting hunting and trapping.

“There’ve been plenty of times agencies are ordered to redo rulemaking, and it’s done by normal order in course of rulemaking,” she said.

The decision comes amid an effort at the federal level to advocate for restoring protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups petitioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prompting a year-long review of the status of wolves under more aggressive laws in Idaho and Montana. The groups have since sued to compel a decision.

On Tuesday an environmental group filed a new lawsuit against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claiming that the federal government must complete a nation-wide wolf recovery plan. Currently recovery plans exist for areas such as the Northern Rockies or Great Lakes region.

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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State Reporter/Outdoors Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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