A Montana judge declined a petition to halt the state’s controversial wolf hunt Tuesday, rejecting a claim from two environmental groups that continued killing would cause irreparable harm.
In a highly anticipated hearing Monday, Lewis and Clark County Judge Matthew Abbott considered a potential first-of-its kind closure of Montana’s wolf hunting and trapping season, following an October lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote against the state, its wildlife commissioners, and its Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
The battle over wolves in the Northern Rockies has reignited a culture war going back generations in the West. Last year’s wolf hunt, the most aggressive in modern Montana history, culminated in the deaths of one-fifth of Yellowstone National Park’s entire wolf population, with some three-quarters of those killed in Montana.
“There’s a lot of frustration that Montanans are not being heard and their best interests are not at play here for a few vehement, vocal wolf haters.”
Conservationists argue that Montana’s most extreme anti-wolf lawmakers have hijacked and politicized a formerly revered system of wildlife governance. Despite tens of thousands of public comments demanding a more measured approach to wolf management, the state has continued to pursue a campaign of large-scale population reduction.
“There are important justified values and ideals at play here,” Michelle Lute, the carnivore conservation director at Project Coyote, told the court Monday. “There’s a lot of frustration that Montanans are not being heard and their best interests are not at play here for a few vehement, vocal wolf haters.”
In court, the environmental groups argued that a flawed population model led Montana to overestimate its wolf population by hundreds of animals. The inflated numbers, they alleged, became the basis for legislation signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in 2021 calling for the killing of at least 450 wolves — approximately 40 percent of Montana’s estimated population of more than 1,100 animals.
According to a plan developed in the early 2000s during wrangling over removing wolves from the endangered species list, Montana is required to review its wolf management regime at least every five years. The conservation organizations alleged that the reviews never happened, and the state adopted a controversial population estimation model — the central focus of Monday’s hearing — without adequate public comment and set statewide quotas based on the “stale” management plan.
“The issue is that the data doesn’t match the predictions of the model,” Francisco Javier Santiago Ávila, a conservation manager with Project Coyote, testified Monday, adding that his review of state records indicated that Montana overestimated its wolf population by as many as 300 animals in recent years.
The groups requested the injunction on hunting and trapping to prevent irreparable harm to the state’s wolf population, Montana’s system for democratic wolf management decision-making, and the organizations and individuals committed to wolf recovery.
Officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks responded in court by defending the state’s Integrated Patch Occupancy Model, or iPOM, as a sound tool created in conjunction with experts as part of a decade-and-a-half process. The department said the model had been presented to the public.
In a 26-page opinion rejecting the injunction request, Abbott wrote that he was not convinced that Montana’s population estimation is “so unreliable or so substantially tending to overestimate wolf populations” that its continued use would cause the kind of damage that warranted the injunction.
“There is no evidence that this season is the pivotal season for Montana’s wolves,” he wrote. “Even if 450 wolves are killed, no witness presented evidence that this year will plunge Montana wolf populations below a sustainable level.”
The plaintiffs could have a winning argument on Montana’s failure to review the wolf plan, Abbott went on to say, however, the proposed remedy for that issue was to order the state to review the plan, not to end its hunting and trapping season.
Abbott said his task was “not to decide what Montana’s policy should be or to predict the outcome of this case.”
“The attention this case has garnered so far might lead one to believe the Court is deciding the fate of the Gray Wolf in the Northern Rockies today. It is not,” Abbott wrote. “Gray wolf management is principally a matter for the political branches; at most, this Court’s role is simply to ensure those branches of government are coloring within the lines set by the Constitution and the statute. And even that is not truly before the Court today: here, the Court considers only a request for preliminary injunction.”
To achieve the wolf reduction mandated by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, a panel of Montana wildlife commissioners appointed by Gianforte approved an array of highly controversial hunting and trapping methods in 2021, including the use of bait to lure wolves off protected lands, night hunting with night vision goggles, the use of snares, and an increase on bag limits that allowed a single individual to kill 20 wolves.
Most controversially, Montana abolished hunting quotas that had limited the number of wolves that could be killed in two hunting districts north of Yellowstone to one per year. The result was the deadliest winter the national park has seen since the animals were reintroduced in 1995. (Montana reinstated wolf hunting quotas outside Yellowstone in August — albeit with a threshold five times higher than it was at the time of Gianforte’s 2020 election.)
With the 2021 legislation still in effect, WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote filed suit on October 27. Abbott then issued a temporary restraining order reinstating the 2020-era quotas outside Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, reducing the number of wolves an individual hunter could kill to five, and prohibiting the use of snares.
Gianforte, who unlawfully killed a collared Yellowstone wolf himself a month after taking office, responded by attacking the judge’s credibility.
“The legislature makes laws, the Fish and Wildlife Commission sets rules based on both those laws and science, and FWP implements those rules,” the governor tweeted. “Unfortunately, another activist judge overstepped his bounds today to align with extreme activists.”
With his decision Tuesday, Abbott’s restraining order was lifted, and the regulations that were in place before went back into effect.
The eight-hour hearing in Abbott’s courtroom followed more than a year of escalating conflict over Montana’s management of wolves. At the center of that story is the relationship between Gianforte and the state’s once-vaunted fish and wildlife department.
By law, Montana’s governor is to make selections for the state’s “quasi-judicial citizen board” of wildlife commissioners, who set policy for FWP, “without regard to political affiliation” and “solely for the wise management of the fish and wildlife of the state.”
As The Intercept detailed in an investigation in July, all but one of Gianforte’s nominees, were high-dollar contributors to his political campaigns. One was his former running mate. The commissioners hailed from the trophy hunting, outfitting, oil and gas, and livestock industry. Gianforte did not select a single representative from Montana’s expansive community of conservationists for the critical panel.
Veteran Montana wildlife managers have accused the governor, through his commission, of tarnishing a respected and professional department and seeking to return the state to the 1880s, when wolves were systematically extirpated from the landscape.
In a statement Tuesday, Lizzy Pennock, a Montana-based carnivore coexistence advocate at WildEarth Guardians who testified at Monday’s hearing, said her organization would continue its challenge to Gianforte’s campaign to slash Montana’s wolf population.
“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,” Pennock said. “We will keep fighting for Montana’s wolves in the courtroom while our case carries on and outside the courtroom in every way possible.”