District judge allows Montana's wolf hunting & trapping season to proceed

Posted at 6:20 PM, Nov 29, 2022

HELENA — A district judge in Helena has decided to allow Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping regulations for the 2022 season to move forward.

District Court Judge Chris Abbott declared in a ruling Tuesday that environmental groups who filed suit over the regulations hadn’t shown they would threaten immediate “irreparable injury” to the state’s wolf population. He declined their request for a preliminary injunction to block the rules, and he allowed a previous temporary restraining order he had granted earlier this month to expire.

Abbott made his decision after a full-day hearing on Monday. It means up to six wolves can be taken this season in a management area adjacent to the north side of Yellowstone National Park. Each person will be able to take up to ten wolves per season by hunting and ten by trapping, and the use of snares to take wolves will be allowed.

The groups WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote sued Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in October, claiming the state hadn’t done enough to justify increasing wolf harvesting. At Monday’s hearing, the plaintiffs argued the new wolf season rules were based on models that may be overestimating the number of wolves in Montana. They said increased hunting and trapping could have significant impacts on the sustainability of the wolf population, especially around Yellowstone.

In his ruling, Abbott said he was only ruling on the need for an immediate injunction, not the final merits of the case. He said he wasn’t convinced that the state’s model “is so unreliable or so substantially tending to overestimate wolf populations that the Department and Commission’s reliance on it while this litigation pends is likely to trigger irreparable harm to wolf sustainability.” He said, even if 450 wolves are killed this year, there was no evidence to show that single season would put the wolf population below a sustainable level.

Abbott also noted that the state had already reduced the quota around Yellowstone, after it had been far higher in 2021, so he said there was not reason to assume the current rules would threaten immediate irreparable injury to the Yellowstone wolf population.

“Plaintiffs have raised significant policy considerations and presented several arguments that could potentially prevail in the litigation,” he said. “The Court’s task, however, is not to decide what Montana’s policy should be or to predict the outcome of this case. The Court must simply ask whether Plaintiffs have demonstrated a need for a preliminary injunction to minimize harm and avert irreparable injury until this case can be finally decided. For the reasons stated above, the Court concludes that they have not.”

In a statement, WildEarth Guardians expressed disappointment in Abbott’s ruling.

“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, a carnivore coexistence advocate with the group. “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 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 2022 established quotas for wolf harvesting based on broad regions of the state, allowing a total of up to 456 wolves to be taken.