Start of Montana wolf trapping season on hold after federal judge's ruling

Posted at 5:16 PM, Nov 24, 2023

HELENA — Montana’s trapping season for wolves was set to open on Monday in many areas, but it’s now on hold in much of the state, after a federal judge’s order.

Earlier this year, two environmental groups filed suit over Montana’s wolf trapping regulations, claiming they were “reasonably certain” to cause incidental harm to grizzly bears. On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy issued a preliminary injunction, ordering the trapping season to be significantly shortened – to the time when almost all grizzlies will be in their dens for winter.

Molloy ruled the plaintiffs – the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force and WildEarth Guardians – had established serious questions about the impact if the trapping season went forward as planned. He ordered the season in most of the state be limited to between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15.

The ruling applies across western and central Montana: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ geographic regions 1 through 5, plus Hill, Blaine and Phillips Counties from Region 6. In the remainder of Region 6 and Region 7, the trapping season can begin Nov. 27, as originally scheduled.

However, the vast majority of wolf trapping occurs in the area under the ruling. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission establishes regional quotas for how many wolves can be hunted and trapped each year. Out of a statewide quota of more than 300 wolves, the entirety of Regions 5, 6 and 7 share a single quota of five wolves.

Grizzlies are listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states, and judges have said that the federal Endangered Species Act prevents any activities that have a reasonable certainty of harming a listed species.

This summer, the commission adopted wolf trapping regulations, with a season generally running from Nov. 27 through March 15. However, they established a floating start date in areas considered “occupied grizzly habitat.” In those areas, FWP wouldn’t allow trapping to begin until they confirm through observation that bears are in their dens.

The plaintiffs argued the state had underestimated the chance of bears getting accidentally caught in wolf traps. They said biologists have reported 21 cases of grizzlies being caught in traps in the state, and they believe that number is low because there have been anecdotal reports of other bears with injuries consistent with trapping and because grizzlies are strong enough to pull a trap off its anchor and walk away with it.

Attorneys for the state of Montana said the 21 reported cases of grizzlies getting caught in traps dated back to 1988, they weren’t all from wolf traps, and most of the traps were set by biologists, not members of the public. They said the only confirmed case of a public wolf trapper with an incidental catch of a grizzly was in 2013, in a time outside the current trapping season. They said steps like the floating start date have also limited the chance for harm.

Molloy said in his ruling that he found the plaintiffs’ arguments more persuasive. He said there were some changes in this year’s regulations, including a later end date and a reduction in the area subject to the floating start date, that made the risk of incidental harm higher.

The state has already announced it’s appealing the decision. Gov. Greg Gianforte criticized Molloy’s ruling in a statement.

“Montana has a healthy, sustainable population of wolves and grizzlies, and there has been no incidental take of grizzlies from wolf trapping in Montana since 2013,” he said. “And yet misusing ESA protections for the grizzly to thwart the state’s wolf management plan, the activist judge has obstructed the state from responsibly managing wolves based on the sound science of FWP biologists. The state has appealed this textbook case of judicial activism, and urges the federal government to review and approve the state’s petition to delist the grizzly which has recovered in Montana’s ecosystems.”

FWP said in a statement that it will continue to track when grizzly bears den across the state, in case the appeals court overturns the injunction and allows the floating start date to go forward again.