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Groups ask judge to halt Montana wolf trapping season over alleged threat to grizzlies

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Groups ask judge to halt Montana wolf trapping season over alleged threat to grizzlies

Sep 25, 2023 | 6:51 pm ET
By Blair Miller
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Groups ask judge to halt Montana wolf trapping season over alleged threat to grizzlies
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Leopold wolf following grizzly bear. (Provided by Doug Smith, April 2005, via the University of Montana)

Two conservation groups have asked a federal judge in Missoula to halt the upcoming wolf trapping season in parts of Montana over concerns that grizzly bears could be injured or killed by the traps in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The Missoula-based Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force and western nonprofit WildEarth Guardians asked for a preliminary injunction on Friday that seeks to block the state of Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Lesley Robinson from allowing wolf and coyote trapping in habitat inhabited by grizzlies in the state.

The groups sued the state earlier this month after the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted new wolf and coyote trapping regulations for the year at an Aug. 17 meeting. The regulations allow one person to trap 10 wolves and hunt 10 others each season, an increase from five total in 2020, according to the lawsuit.

This season in grizzly bear habitat, FWP is using a floating opening trapping season date that could start as soon as Nov. 27 and as late as Dec. 31. The trapping season closes on March 15. Baiting wolves is again allowed this season outside of Lynx Protection Zones under the rules.

The conservation groups argue in the new filing that a federal judge should issue a preliminary injunction to stop any wolf trapping and snaring in grizzly bear habitat even within that season. They say an injunction is necessary because grizzlies are in their hyperphagia stage in November and sometimes in early December, eating all they can before they go into their dens before the winter.

Groups ask judge to halt Montana wolf trapping season over alleged threat to grizzlies
Wolf and lynx protection zones for the 2023 season. (Image courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

The groups argue that allowing wolf traps, including baited ones, in grizzly habitat – especially when some grizzlies are still out looking for food – increases the risk that a grizzly could get caught in one of the traps or snares.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates there are more than 2,100 grizzly bears in Montana in the western two-thirds of the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of a year-long study to determine whether it will move forward with considering removing grizzlies from the list of endangered and threatened species in two grizzly recovery zones near Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

During this past legislature, lawmakers set up a framework to prepare for their possible delisting in those areas and how to manage grizzlies if the state takes charge.

The conservation groups argue in their filing that by allowing the wolf trapping season to continue to March 15, the state is exposing grizzlies who leave their dens looking for food after the worst part of winter to being incidentally injured or killed if they encounter a snare or trap.

“Over the past two years, experts and outraged Montanans have told the Commission that expanded wolf trapping and snaring will illegally harm grizzly bears,” Lizzy Pennock, an attorney at WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement. “The commission has ignored these warnings at its own peril. We look forward to seeing them in court.”

Last November, a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge issued a restraining order in a public trust doctrine case that reinstated furbearer trapping regulations from the 2020-21 season, when only five wolves could be taken per person. But he lifted the order a month later and allowed the commission’s regulations for the wolf trapping season to proceed. WildEarth Guardians was also a plaintiff in that case.

The plaintiffs in this case are challenging the regulations under the Endangered Species Act, claiming that it both prohibits a person from taking an endangered species, like a grizzly bear, and also prohibits a party like the government from allowing people “to conduct an activity that results in the take of a listed species.”

The groups argue that any trapping or capture of an endangered species amounts to an “unlawful take” even if the species, in this case a grizzly bear, is not injured or killed because of the trap or snare.

They cite 21 instances of grizzly bears in Montana being caught in traps in recent years set for wolves or other animals between the early 1990s and 2018 and say there are likely more that have not been documented. The lawsuit claims the state has reported seven grizzlies that were captured in wolf or coyote traps in Montana since 2010.

It says that in other instances, bears have lost toes or feet in traps for wolves and other smaller animals like marten, which the plaintiffs say harms the bears’ ability to dig for food, build a den, and leads to more human conflicts as they search for easier food sources.

This year’s regulations allow trappers to use foothold traps for wolves with a jaw spread of up to nine inches with a minimum 10-pound tension requirement, and for bait to be used 30 feet from a trap. Wolf traps must be checked at least once every 48 hours. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the trap size and bait rules make it “almost certain” that grizzly bears will be captured.

“Montana not only authorizes trapping and snaring that will take bears in the future, it has also authorized the expansion of those activities into timeframes and areas known to be occupied by grizzly bears out of dens,” the lawsuit says.

It also says that possibly opening the trapping season in grizzly habitat right after the hunting season ends could expose the grizzlies to more gut piles and dead animals than if the season started later.

The groups say the regulations undermine the recovery of grizzly bears in Montana and harms their members by reducing their ability to observe, hunt, and photograph the grizzlies in their natural habitat.

They are asking a judge to enjoin the trapping rules in grizzly habitat while taking a deeper look to decide whether the trapping authorization violates the Endangered Species Act as a whole.

A spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Monday the department does not comment on pending litigation.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission also met briefly Monday morning in a special meeting to fix what Sarah Clerget, FWP’s chief legal counsel, called a “clerical error” regarding wolf administrative rules sent to the Secretary of State’s Office to begin the rulemaking process.

She said the commission previously modified an old version of the rules and needed to update a newer version to be sent to the Secretary of State’s Office. Clerget also said that in response to litigation filed by WildEarth Guardians, the commission wanted to be sure the wolf management plan it is finalizing is separate from administrative rules.

After several members of the public criticized the commission for the Friday afternoon notice of the Monday morning meeting, the commission adopted the changes and told the public they would have ample time in the future to provide comment during the administrative rules process.

“The reputation of the department and the commission has become highly tainted by these actions,” KC York, with Trap Free Montana, told commissioners. “So, despite many of us not fully understanding the purpose of this meeting, we felt it was imperative we still be here. Even if we disagreed, it didn’t used to be this way.”

Correction: This story has been updated to note the comments at Monday’s commission meeting were made by FWP’s chief legal counsel and not the commission chair. A statistic about the number of wolves that could be taken in previous years has also been corrected.