Groups go to court to get wolves relisted in Montana and Idaho

Lawsuit against Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM argue hunting policies imperil wolf populations

By Darrell Ehrlick
Daily Montanan

A prediction, several years in the making, came true on April 8 when an alliance of nearly a dozen conservation groups filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, seeking to restore protections for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, arguing that both states’ aggressive hunting policies imperil the populations.

Montana and Idaho officials were warned by conservation groups and public testimony that the aggressive hunting policies both states adopted, which were similar, would trigger lawsuits, and possibly result in the federal government reassuming wolf management, instead of allowing both states to manage the wolf population.

Undeterred by the criticism, the Montana and Idaho legislatures, controlled by a supermajority of Republicans, loosened hunting restrictions and the wolf populations in both states started a more rapid decline, alarming wildlife conservation groups.

Courtesy photo.

But in a new lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Missoula, the 10 groups say that not only do the newly adopted state wolf management rules set the gray wolves on a path to near extinction and poor genetics, but both states also use faulty, if not bogus, statistics to justify their management plans.

The suit claims that both states have taken parallel approaches to rapidly decrease the number of wolves, a species that enjoys the protection of the Endangered Species Act in all states except portions of Oregon, Utah and Washington, and all of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The suit focuses on Montana and Idaho because of their large wolf populations and aggressive management change, brought about in 2021:

“In 2021, the state legislatures in Montana and Idaho each passed legislation intended to decrease the size of the wolf populations in their states. These new regulations allow for extension of hunting season lengths, increase or remove bag limits, legalize new harvest methods and include additional opportunities for reimbursement of legal killing of wolves. In Idaho and Montana, hunters and trappers can request ‘reimbursement’ for expenses, including truck or ATV, firearm and clothing purchases associated with the killing of wolves by reporting their wolf kills and submitting receipts to the state department of fish and game.”

Not only does the lawsuit claim that both states’ purpose is to rapidly decrease the wolf population through hunting, which they say will result in a weaker population in the long-term due to the lack of genetic diversity, the lawsuit says that Montana and Idaho are using shoddy science to justify their stances.

Bad science to estimate wolf populations?

In Montana, the integrated patch occupancy model, or iPOM, has come under fire previously. However, the technique once again will be at issue in this lawsuit.

The iPOM model estimates wolf populations in the Treasure State.

“iPOM estimates may not be appropriate for estimating abundance and developing management strategies at a smaller spatial scale (such as in specific hunting management areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park). The Service stated iPOM estimates of wolf abundance are higher than those other patch occupancy models,” according to the lawsuit.

But in new research conducted in 2023, the conservation groups argue that the iPOM techniques are “biased and fundamentally flawed,” because Montana is so large that the estimator can lead to “misapplication and underreporting of the model’s estimate of variance.”

A 2021 study concluded that “Montana’s iPOM estimates are biased and result in population estimation errors. [The study’s author] explains that because Montana’s iPOM estimator underestimates territory size, its result overestimates the number of packs that occupy a fixed area, and thus overestimates population size.”

Meanwhile, since 2019, Idaho has used a space-to-event model, which uses cameras to count wolf detections and then uses that to estimate the number of wolves across the state. However, the lawsuit said that Idaho is misusing the model because space-to-event models depend on certain assumptions, including that the cameras are placed randomly, that each observation is independent of another and that all animals within the viewshed of the camera are photographed.

“Idaho currently places their cameras for the STE model non-randomly in order to enhance the likelihood of detection, which is a violation of STE assumptions,” the lawsuit said. “Idaho uses motion-triggered cameras instead of time-lapse cameras, which also adds bias. It is not known how well estimates from Idaho’s STE model compares to the true numbers of the wolves in the state.”

The lawsuit points out that even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service admits that there is no way to correct the models or compute a more accurate number from both states, and has denounced the way Montana and Idaho have used the models.

“In a press release, the Service stated, ‘The states of Montana and Idaho recently adopted laws and regulations designed to substantially reduce the gray wolf populations in their states using means and measures that are at odds with modern professional wildlife management,’” the lawsuit stated.

Humans, hunting causing population to plummet

The lawsuit contends that even with the flawed science that is causing confusion and uncertainty about the true numbers of wolves in Idaho and Montana, that both states report a significant decline in the wolf population since 2020.

The federal and state governments acknowledge that the main cause of the population plunge is because of more aggressive wolf hunting. As much as 80% of wolf deaths in the U.S. are caused by hunting, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, coupled with research from 2023, concludes that while the reductions in wolves may not yet be approaching the level where the very existence of wolves in Idaho and Montana is threatened, it has been reduced so significantly that the result translates into a huge reduction in the diversity of genetics, which threaten the long-term viability of wolves in both states.

“While gray wolves may fall above minimum effective population sizes needed to avoid extinction due to inbreeding depression in the short-term, they are below sizes predicted to be necessary to avoid long-term risk of extinction,” the lawsuit claims.

The suit also faults the Fish and Wildlife Service for making its determination that wolves need no additional protections in Montana and Idaho, based on just one full hunting season.

“The Service did not utilize the best available science on gray wolf population numbers and the impacts of human-caused mortality,” the suit claimed, while asking the court to restore protections in the state. “The Service misinterpreted and misapplied, and failed to consult and apply the best available science on minimum population size population estimation methodologies. Plaintiffs provided these studies to the Service before the agency issued its ‘not warranted’ finding.”

The groups leveled the blame not just at the individual states and legislators, but also the Biden administration and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, who faces a tight re-election battle to keep his seat.

“Let’s get right to the point,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “The end goal of the wolf ‘management plans’ in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming is to once again exterminate them from the Northern Rockies. They think the only good wolf is a dead wolf.”

Both federal agencies have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

“The Biden administration and its Fish and Wildlife Service is complicit in the horrific war on wolves being waged in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana,” stated George Nickas, executive director of co-plaintiff Wilderness Watch. “Idaho is fighting to open airstrips all over the backcountry, including in designated wilderness, to get more hunters to wipe out wolves in their most remote hideouts. Montana is resorting to night hunting and shooting over bait and Wyoming has simply declared an open season. It’s unfortunate that citizens have to turn to the courts, but it seems that like their state counterparts, federal officials have lost all reverence or respect for these iconic wilderness animals.”

The Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Follow The Daily Montanan on Facebook, X and

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