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Judge limits Montana wolf trapping season over threat to grizzly bears

by BLAIR MILLER Daily Montanan
| November 22, 2023 8:10 AM

A federal judge in Missoula issued an order late Tuesday afternoon that will limit Montana’s wolf trapping season to Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 next year in hunting Regions 1 through 5 and three counties along the north-central border, citing the possibility that endangered grizzly bears get caught in wolf traps or snares.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy’s order granting a preliminary injunction in the case came less than 30 hours after he heard arguments from the plaintiffs – the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizens Task Force and WildEarth Guardians – and the state over whether he should grant the injunction. The State of Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Lesley Robinson are the named defendants in the suit.

In his order, he sided with the plaintiffs on most of the points raised at Monday’s hourlong hearing, saying the traps could indeed injure a grizzly, that any capture of a grizzly is considered an illegal “take” under the Endangered Species Act, and that limiting the wolf trapping season to those six weeks would also limit the potential for any grizzlies to be caught in traps.

Wolf trapping and snaring will only be allowed Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 in FWP Wolf Regions 1-5 and in Hill, Blaine and Phillips counties.

Molloy did not order a restriction on coyote trapping, however, meaning coyote traps and snares can still be used year-round.

“Because the substantial body of evidence plaintiffs present leads to the logical conclusion that future takes of grizzly bears in legal wolf and coyote traps are reasonably certain under the State’s current regulatory scheme, plaintiffs have shown irreparable harm sufficient for a preliminary injunction,” Molloy wrote in his order.

This year’s regulations for wolf trapping and snaring allow Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to determine the starting date for the season on a floating basis – anytime between Nov. 27 and Dec. 31 – with considerations of how many grizzlies are estimated to still be out of their dens. But the season has a set March 15 end date.

The plaintiffs had challenged those regulations, asking the court to prohibit the entire wolf trapping season, but in their request for a preliminary injunction, the groups asked for the limited season between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15.

The plaintiffs argued, and provided multiple affidavits from biologists in support, that limiting the trapping season to those dates would ensure the fewest number of grizzly bears would be out of their dens and able to potentially get caught in traps or snares set for wolves. Their attorney, Tim Bechtold, told Molloy again Monday that grizzlies have had documented injuries from those traps in recent years, which would constitute an illegal take under the ESA.

Molloy, on multiple instances in his order, sided with the plaintiffs’ arguments and called the state’s arguments “unpersuasive” and “unconvincing.”

He said the plaintiffs have raised serious questions about threats to grizzlies under the ESA, that irreparable harm to the grizzlies and the plaintiffs was “not only possible, but likely,” and said they had shown that the state’s 2023 regulations – which also allow for baiting of wolves, a longer season than prior years, and an increased individual quota – “will only increase the likelihood that grizzly bears are subject to illegal takes in the future.”

“We are elated that Montana’s grizzly bears will at least temporarily avoid the cruel harms caused by indiscriminate steel traps and snares in their habitat,” said WildEarth Guardians’ carnivore coexistence attorney Lizzy Pennock. “We are pleased that the court saw the dangers of allowing these activities to continue, and we are optimistic that this win is a precursor to securing longer-term grizzly protections.”

Spokespersons for the Governor’s Office and FWP each said the offices were reviewing Molloy’s order Tuesday evening and would provide comment on the decision once they had finished.

Molloy agreed with the plaintiffs that evidence shows grizzlies are spending more time out of their dens during the winter – and sometimes not hibernating at all – because of climate change, and that since grizzlies often follow wolves and feed on their kills during the winter, the longer trapping season puts them at a greater risk of being caught.

He said since scented bait can be used, grizzlies will be attracted to those traps with their keen senses of smell during a time of the year where they are consuming the most food. And he also notes that grizzlies have been expanding their territory beyond two main ecosystems in Montana and moving further east.

“Grizzly bears are moving into areas of Western and Central Montana … and are more active outside of their dens during the shoulder seasons due to climate change,” Molloy wrote. “Therefore, it is reasonably certain that more grizzly bears in Montana will be out and about during the time period and in the locations that wolf trapping is permitted under Montana’s 2023 regulations.”

Mike Bader, an adviser and spokesperson for the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, said Tuesday evening the groups were pleased that Molloy found their arguments credible and determinative.

He said Molloy’s declining to enjoin the coyote trapping season, which runs year-round, was not a permanent defeat for the group, and that the preliminary injunction was a positive initial order for the groups’ overall requests.

“That’s an issue that’s still alive out there. And all the other points that we’ve made, we’re in a pretty good position,” Bader said. “So we’ll consult with our attorney and figure out what we think is the best way forward.”

He said the groups were surprised at how fast the order was handed down, believing it would not be until after Thanksgiving because the FWP’s attorney told the court Monday the season would certainly not open next Monday, Nov. 27.

“It may be that the judge didn’t necessarily trust them to not open it,” he said.

Bader said he believes the current administration is too focused on lowering the carnivore and predator population in Montana and not on understanding the balance of the ecosystems in Montana – including with the grizzly bear management administrative rules that are being finalized which currently would allow ranchers to shoot a grizzly on public lands under certain circumstances if they are delisted.

“You add it all up and what you see is – do you really trust the agency in this current administration in Montana to really work in the best interests of the grizzlies? And the answer is no, because every time there’s a decision point, do we favor the bear or not favor the bear?” Bader said. “They’re defaulting to, ‘We will not favor the bear.’”

Blair Miller is a Helena-based reporter. The Daily Montanan is a nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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