Published since 1946
Wolf Litigation in Montana Makes Public Trust, Procedural, and Federal Preemption Claims
Two environmental groups filed suit in Montana’s First Judicial District court on October 27 alleging that several statutes adopted by the Montana legislature in 2021 and wolf hunting and trapping regulations adopted based on those laws for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons violate the Public Trust Doctrine enshrined in the state’s constitution and case law. In addition, WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote assert that the state violated Montana’s Administrative Procedures Act by failing to review and update a 2002 Wolf Management Plan and using a population estimation method not included in that plan. The suit also claims federal laws preempt the state’s wolf statutes and regulations in areas adjacent to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks as well as on lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The petitioners have asked the court to issue a writ of mandamus requiring Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to update its 2002 Wolf Management Plan before allowing any further hunting or trapping of wolves and to declare the statutes and regulations adopted in 2021 and 2022 unconstitutional. The petitioners further asked the court to issue an injunction preventing the state from allowing wolf killing in or around federal lands, including Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. The state has not yet responded to the suit.
Update: Montana State Court Judge Christopher Abbott issued a temporary restraining order on November 15 that reverted wolf hunting and trapping laws to their status in 2020, pending a hearing on the Plaintiff’s complaint on November 28. Under this order, the maximum number of wolves an individual can kill is reduced from 20 to 5, the use of snares for trapping wolves is prohibited, and conservative quotas for wolves in areas adjacent to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks were re-established. So far this season, 56 wolves have been reported taken by hunters. The wolf trapping season is set to open on November 28. The combined wolf harvest quota for the 2022-23 season is 456.
Further Update: Following a day-long hearing on November 28th, Montana State Court Judge Abbott issued an order denying the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction and dissolving the temporary restraining order issued on November 15. As a result, the hunting and trapping rules set by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission last August are back in effect as of November 29th. The judge ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that they would suffer irreparable harm if the full annual quota of 450 wolves were killed this season. The court did not indicate whether it thought the plaintiffs might eventually prevail on their claims that the state’s method of estimating wolf population size was sufficiently flawed or that federal law preempts state laws that allow killing of wolves that roam in and out of Yellowstone National Park. The judge’s ruling did indicate it will be difficult for the plaintiffs to prevail on those counts, however. The court did indicate the plaintiffs may prevail on their claim that the state has failed to adhere to its stated schedule for reviewing its wolf management plan, but noted that halting all wolf hunting and trapping was not the appropriate remedy for that failure. Rather, the court could order the state to review its plan, as the state said it would. The judge ruled that the court could issue such relief “in a year just as easily as it can today.”