Montana officials are urging the judge to remove the limit on wolf kills

HELENA — Montana officials on Monday asked a judge to lift an injunction restricting wolf hunting and capturing after fears too many of the animals could be killed this winter.

The hearing before District Judge Chris Abbott in Helena comes as Montana and other Republican-run states have moved in recent years to make killing the predators easier. Montana’s relaxed wolf-hunting rules drew sharp criticism after 23 wolves from Yellowstone National Park were killed last winter, including 19 by hunters and trappers in Montana.

Environmentalists sued the state in October over its regulations authorizing the killing of 456 wolves statewide this winter, including a new quota of just six wolves north of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly asked Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte last winter to end hunting outside the park. Gianforte argued at the time — and the state continues to argue in its response to the lawsuit — that if the wolves leave Yellowstone and enter Montana, they can be hunted under state law.

Abbott issued an injunction on Nov. 16 that limited wolf hunting to just two animals outside of Yellowstone and temporarily reduced the number of wolves a person can kill during the season from 20 to five. He also limited the number of those who could be killed near Glacier National Park and temporarily banned the use of neck snares during the fishing season, which began Monday.

Abbott is considering whether to continue those restrictions while the case is heard or whether to reinstate the wolf hunting rules approved by the state in August.

Gianforte has criticized the judge, saying Abbott “overstepped his bounds to associate with extreme activists” when issuing the restraining order.

Gianforte caught and killed a radio-collared wolf from Yellowstone last year on private property near the park. He was later cautioned for violating the state hunt for failing to attend a mandatory trapper training course prior to killing the wolf.

The groups that filed the lawsuit, WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote, argue that Montana’s wolf hunting quota was set based on an erroneous population estimate and that state hunting laws amended the state’s 2002 wolf plan without a rulemaking process and public comment to have gone through.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks argues that its wolf plan is not an administrative regulation and that the population estimation process is a more accurate version than a previous process, which the organizations have never questioned.