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Montana wolf regulations challenged in state court

Environmental groups WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote are asking a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge to toss out Montana's current wolf-hunting regulations and declare four hunting laws passed by last year's Montana Legislature unconstitutional.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 27, the groups argue that four bills the Legislature passed in 2021 and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission-set wolf quotas for the 2022-2023 hunting season violate the Public Trust Doctrine, "an ancient doctrine recognizing the principle that certain natural and cultural resources belong to the people, and that the government must protect and maintain these resources for future generations."

Attorneys for the groups assert that the state's population of gray wolves "seemed relatively stable" between 2011, when federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves were lifted and 2020. They say that changed in 2021 when the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature passed four aggressive wolf management bills that collectively directed the commission to authorize reimbursement for wolf hunters and trappers, increase the season length for trapping, increase bag limits, and permit formerly banned hunting methods such as neck snares, use of bait and hunting at night with spotlights.

The wolf hunting regulations the commission adopted for the 2022-23 season put a 6-wolf quota on the area north of Yellowstone and established a statewide quota of 450 wolves. 

"Montana's politically-motivated wolf slaughter is illegal and completely unmoored from scientifically sound wildlife management, "WildEarth Guardians' carnivore coexistence advocate Lizzy Pennock said in an emailed release about the lawsuit. "Trophy hunting for wolves does not put food on anyone's table, make elk populations healthier, or protect livestock. Montana's pile of wolf carcasses stacks higher everyday, and we are done waiting for somebody else to act."

A spokesperson for FWP said in a Thursday afternoon email that the department had not yet been served the lawsuit and typically does not comment on active litigation.

The plaintiffs take particular issue with the number of wolves killed near Yellowstone National Park's northern boundary last season.

"Montana hunters killed 21 wolves that park biologists identified as Yellowstone wolves, including the entirety of the beloved Phantom Lake Wolf Pack, representing roughly one-fifth of the Yellowstone wolf population," the plaintiffs write in their suit. "When wolves that occupy territory within the national parks are killed in accordance with state hunting laws because they travel outside park borders, the ecosystems of the national parks are directly and negatively impacted. Killing national park wolves, therefore, harms federal interests."

The plaintiffs argue that the new state laws and hunting regulations "are so extreme in their promotion of killing wildlife on federal lands" that they interfere with federal policy for managing public lands. 

The plaintiffs also say the FWP has failed to update the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan that it adopted in anticipation of delisting in 2002, despite language in the plan directing FWP to "undertake a thorough formal review after the first five years" post-delisting and to conduct a subsequent review "at least every five years." This, they argue, amounts to a violation of a "mandatory, non-discretionary duty."

Plaintiffs also take issue with a population assessment tool FWP has used to estimate the state's wolf population, which was used by the commission as it set this year's regulations. The improved Patch Occupancy Model, or iPOM, puts the state's wolf population at 1,160.

Plaintiffs argue this is likely a significant overcount of the actual population and the tool itself "was not subject to peer review, open to public review or comment, or analyzed as an amendment to the wolf population estimate methodologies authorized by the 2002 Wolf Plan" before FWP used it in its modeling for the 2022-2023 hunting regulations.

FWP's failure to take comment on iPOM amount to a violation of the Montana Constitution and Montana Administrative Procedure Act directing agencies to issue notice of a rule and allow for public comment, they argue.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to toss out the 2022 wolf hunting regulations, invalidate any hunting licenses that have already been issued for this season, and direct FWP to update the 2002 wolf plan. They're also asking the court to declare the wolf management laws the Legislature passed in 2021 unconstitutional.

The lawsuit comes in the midst of a review the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting to weigh reinstating federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the western U.S. The federal agency announced it would be exploring relisting in September 2021 after finding "substantial, credible information indicating that a listing action may be warranted" in an initial assessment. The agency is overdue in issuing that review, which was supposed to be completed within a year.

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