Court Order Changes Wolf Hunting Season Effective Immediately

Photo credit: Montana FWP.

Last week, a Lewis and Clark County District Court issued an injunction affecting some of Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping statutes. The changes take effect immediately.

The changes described in the injunction are as follows:

• Restores Wolf Management Units (WMU) 110, 313 and 316 as they existed in the 2020 Wolf Regulations. WMU 110 borders Glacier National Park and WMUs 313 and 316 are north of Yellowstone National Park

• Restores the quotas for WMU 110, 313, 316 as they existed in the 2020 Wolf Regulations, ie two wolves in WMU 110 and one wolf each in WMU 313 and 316. Currently there was one wolf and no wolves trapped in WMU 313 were harvested in WMU 316 and 110. Wolf hunting and trapping in WMU 313 is now closed.

• Limits all hunters and trappers to taking a total of five wolves per person per season.

• Prohibit the use of snares as a legal prey method for capturing wolves.

The groups, which previously filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, allege that the state is currently hunting wolves and trapping regulations violate numerous statutes and the Montana Constitution, a Montana state court had asked a Montana state court to bar the start of the state’s wolf trapping season and immediately halt the current wolf hunting season while the pending lawsuit is determined. Conservation groups WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote, a project of the Earth Island Institute, submitted the time-sensitive application as the wolf trapping and capturing season is scheduled to begin on November 28, 2022. The hunting season started in September.

The conservation groups’ request was filed two weeks after filing their first lawsuit alleging that the state’s current regulations on wolf hunting and capturing violate numerous statutes and the Montana Constitution.

In the motion, they asked the court to issue an injunction, followed by an injunction to stop all recreational wolf killing in the state pending the resolution of the lawsuit. In the 2021-2022 season, 273 wolves were killed by hunters and trappers — including 19 Yellowstone wolves — with nearly 70 percent of wolves killed after the Nov. 29, 2021 trapping season began. So far this season, hunters have killed 55 wolves, while regulations allow hunters and trappers to kill an additional 395 wolves before the season ends in March 2023. The motion alleges that if the court allows the hunting and trapping season to continue while they fully process their case, the conservation groups’ interests will be irreparably damaged.

Specifically, the motion — and the underlying lawsuit — alleges that the population model used to estimate the total number of wolves in the state has significant flaws. Because the 456 quota for the 2022-2023 season is based on a flawed population model, reaching the quota could have devastating consequences for the state’s wolf population. According to the claims in the application, “Montana does not have an accurate picture of how many wolves reside in Montana and cannot sustainably and legally manage the species through another wolf hunt this winter.”

“Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping season must be halted before our state’s wolf population faces possible decimation and the point of no return,” said Lizzy Pennock, Montana carnivore coexistence advocate at WildEarth Guardians. “As long as the wolf-killing season lasts, any wolf that suffers and dies under the allegedly unconstitutional and illegal policies is a wolf that should not have been killed in the first place.”

That motion is part of the groups’ lawsuit filed Oct. 27 alleging that the state Montana, MFWP and the commission are breaking the law by relying on outdated and insufficient scientific data to authorize the killing of about 40 percent of the state’s wolf population this coming winter. The lawsuit also alleges that the state disregarded its responsibility to manage wildlife for the benefit of the public at large and exceeded its administrative powers by allowing the slaughter of wolves at state borders, namely Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. More information about the specific claims in the complaint and the legal background that led to this lawsuit can be found here.

“As of this writing, 55 wolves have already been killed in Montana since the hunting season began in September,” said Michelle Lute, PhD in wolf conservation and director of carnivore conservation at Project Coyote, an organization dedicated to protecting native carnivores. “Several studies document that illegal poaching increases during legal recreational hunting, so we know that countless additional wolves, as well as non-target animals, have been killed indiscriminately and are not reflected in the official death toll. We must halt the hunting and trapping of wolves this season, at least until the court can determine whether the state of Montana is violating its guidelines.”

During the approval process for the contested hunting and trapping regulations, first passed in 2021, MFWP determined that the new killing method most expected to increase the number of dead wolves is snares because snares are cheap, easy to get into Plenty to place and easy to handle are hold up in inclement weather. Also, trapping and scavenging are inherently non-selective for the target species. Research shows that neck slings are 21-50 percent selective and foot slings about 32-45 percent effective at capturing the intended animal. Non-target animals that die in traps and traps for wolves include domestic animals, deer, bighorn sheep, and endangered species like grizzly bears and Canada lynx, among others.

“We have a healthy and stable wolf population in Montana,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech. “We have proven we can manage wolves statewide and will continue to do so. We will comply with the judge’s order and look forward to the opportunity to defend good science and management strategies.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will present legal arguments in the case at a hearing scheduled for November 28. The court allowed the injunction to expire on November 29.