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Helena judge rolls back wolf regulations

A wolf crosses a road near Artist Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park, on November 07, 2017.
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A Helena judge curtailed wolf hunting and trapping in the areas surrounding Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and made other changes to the 2022-2023 hunting regulations in a Wednesday order partially granting environmental organizations their request for a temporary restraining order.

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott noted the number of wolves hunters have killed to date as registered on Montana’s Wolf Harvest Dashboard — 56 — in his assessment that “at least some hunting activity can continue to proceed without severe impacts on wolf populations at least long enough to afford the State an opportunity to be heard.”

Abbott therefore rolled back only parts of the regulations the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted in August with guidance from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks while the court weighs the larger issue of whether the 2022-2023 wolf hunting regulations and laws passed by state lawmakers in 2021 violate federal laws and the public trust doctrine of wildlife management enshrined in Montana’s Constitution.

Those regulations include the number of wolves an individual can shoot or trap, the use of neck snares during trapping season, and the quota for hunting districts adjacent to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. In a Nov. 10 filing, plaintiffs WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote sought an immediate halt to all wolf hunting and trapping in the state while the court weighs the merit of the constitutional and federal law claims.

“Plaintiffs have sufficiently shown the imminence of over-harvesting of wolves near the national parks, and that the use of snares and the increase in the ‘bag limit’ could amplify wolf kills in a way that limits the Court’s ability to provide relief, should relief be warranted. Accordingly, the Court will temporarily restrain the State from permitting wolf kills in excess of the quotas in effect for the three wildlife management areas (as defined in 2020) bordering national parks. The Court will also temporarily restrain the State from permitting kills in excess of the bag limit in effect in 2020, and from allowing snares when trapping season begins.”

The order comes with some timelines. Abbott indicated that a hearing on the matter would be scheduled for the afternoon of Nov. 28 — the day wolf trapping season had been scheduled to start — and the temporary restraining order expires the following day.

For now, the 2020 quotas in wolf management units adjacent to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are in effect. That effectively closes unit 313 near Yellowstone and drops units 316 and 110 to a two-wolf quota each. It also limits individuals to a five-wolf limit per season and prohibits the use of neck snares, which environmentalists describe as being especially lethal for non-target wildlife and domestic dogs.

In a statement about the changes, FWP Director Henry “Hank” Worsech described Montana’s wolf population as “healthy and stable.”

“We’ve proven we can manage wolves across the state and will continue to do so,” Worsech said. “We will comply with the judge’s order and look forward to the opportunity to defend good science and management strategies.”

In an emailed statement, WildEarthGuardians’ carnivore coexistence advocate Lizzy Pennock described the ruling as a “promising step in the right direction.”

“We collectively breathed a sigh of relief when we saw the order, knowing that Yellowstone’s wolves — and wolves across the state — will have some protections in place while we wait for their day in court,” Pennock said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is overdue in releasing its decision determining whether Endangered Species Act protections for western gray wolves are warranted. The one-year clock on that decision ran out in September. Asked on Nov. 1 for an update on that decision, a spokesperson for the agency responded that “the status review is ongoing.”