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Montana judge declines to limit wolf-hunting season

Montana will allow hunters to kill 456 gray wolves — about 40% of the population — this winter.

(CN) — Two conservation groups failed Tuesday to secure a preliminary injunction that would curb wolf hunting and trapping this season.

The ruling is a reversal from just two weeks ago when Judge Christopher Abbott issued a temporary restraining order that effectively placed stricter limits on wolf hunting this winter.

In his 26-page decision Tuesday, Abbott wrote that the two plaintiffs, WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote, had "not established irreparable injury to wolf populations" if the restraining order was lifted.

"The State has a legitimate interest in managing wolves and being able to do so in a manner that is efficient, consistent, and understandable to the public, and that accounts for all the interests at stake, including those of hunters and ranchers," he wrote.

WildEarth Guardians said the ruling will allow the state to kill 456 wolves. But the group said the kill quota for the 2022-23 hunting and trapping seasons was based upon a flawed population model.

“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," Lizzy Pennock, an advocate for the group, said in a statement.

Since 2002, when the gray wolf was still on the endangered species list, the state government of Montana has maintained a wolf-management plan that calls for Montana to "maintain at least 14-17 packs statewide." The wolves were taken off the endangered species list in 2011. As a condition of the wolves staying off the endangered species list, the state must make sure there are a minimum of 15 breeding pairs, or about 150 wolves. In effect, that means placing limits on the number of gray wolves that can be hunted every season.

Those limits are set by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The 2022 regulations allow 456 wolves to be killed, although the limit isn't always met.

"The Wolf Plan emphasizes not only precision, but innovation, flexibility, and cost, with the latter more often winning the day as time passes and populations rebound," Abbott wrote.

Key to the wolf-management plan is counting the wolves. As the wolf population has grown, that task has become more difficult in an area spanning thousands of square miles. In recent years, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has turned to statistical models, which have been criticized by conservationists. According to the most recent count, in 2021, the wolf population is holding steady at around 1,144, which would allow hunters to kill roughly 40% of the wolves this winter — if the model is accurate.

In their lawsuit, filed in October, the two environmental groups claimed serious flaws in the state's statistical model.

“Montana does not have an accurate picture of how many wolves are living in Montana and cannot sustainably and legally manage the species through another wolf hunt this winter," the suit alleged.

Judge Abbott's temporary restraining order briefly banned the use of neck snares, placed stricter limits on the number of wolves a single hunter could kill and limited the number of wolves that could be hunted near national parks. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte was critical of the ruling, saying Abbott had "overstepped his bounds to align with extreme activists.”

In his more recent ruling, the judge wrote what might be interpreted as an answer to some of his critics, or perhaps a comment on the media coverage surrounding the 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," he 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 Constitution and statute."

Though he found injunctive relief unnecessary, he noted that the challengers had "raised significant policy considerations and presented several arguments that could potentially prevail in the litigation."

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