Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Two environmental groups are suing the state of Montana for approving additional wolf trapping that could harm or kill grizzly bears.

On Monday, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force and WildEarth Guardians sued the state of Montana in Missoula federal district court, accusing Montana of violating the Endangered Species Act by increasing the odds that grizzly bears could be caught in traps set for other species, primarily wolves.

Grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act, so by law, only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can approve the taking - harm, harassment or death - of a grizzly, and usually only under specific conditions that don’t include trapping wolves.

Over the past few decades, there have been numerous reports of grizzly bears losing toes and paws to traps or stumbling off with traps still attached. Since 2010, the State of Montana has reported seven grizzly bears captured in traps set for wolves and coyotes. The injuries mean bears have a harder time getting food to survive and females are less able to defend their cubs. Neck snares can lead to more deadly injuries.

The environmental groups say if more snares and traps are allowed where grizzlies are still foraging in preparation for hibernation, the number of grizzly injuries could multiply, especially for bears that are trying to migrate between recovery zones.

Montana has allowed wolf trapping, but not snaring, since 2011 when Northern Rockies wolves were delisted in Montana. But in 2021, several laws sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, and Sen. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek, took wolf trapping to another level by extending the wolf season into March and allowing snares and trap baiting. The Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission then approved a bag limit of 10 wolves per hunter-trapper.

However, the changes potentially put the state in violation of federal law because they meant a greater likelihood of trapping grizzly bears. So in November 2021, FWP modified the wolf trapping season by delaying it until late December in any areas where grizzlies were known to be, not just recovery zones. It also prohibited snares on public lands in Canada lynx zones.

Biologists report that bears on the southern end of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem tend to start denning in the last two weeks of November, and all normal bears are denned by Christmas.

Fielder and other trappers weren’t happy. During the 2023 Legislature, Fielder sponsored bills to prohibit delays to the start of the trapping season and to allow trapping everywhere except grizzly bear recovery areas.

The primary reason the bills didn’t pass is that Michael Freeman, Governor Greg Gianforte’s natural resources policy advisor, testified that they would hurt the governor’s efforts to delist the grizzly by endangering bears outside of recovery areas.

But in August, the FWP commission voted to shrink the regions where the wolf trapping season was limited by the presence of grizzly bears. Derek Goldman, Endangered Species Coalition spokesman noted that the area had been reduced by about 25%, meaning trapping would begin at the end of November in areas where grizzlies could still be out.

The plaintiffs noted that there would still be deer and elk gut piles lying around to attract bears because the general hunting season ends at the end of November. The plaintiffs also say that trapping regulations for other species, including coyotes and marten, need to be reworked to prevent grizzlies from coming to harm.

“Montana is expanding its anti-predator campaign, and the State views maimed and killed grizzly bears as collateral damage. Grizzly bears are being wounded by baited traps set for wolves and coyotes, yet wolf trapping is being expanded in grizzly bear habitat during the non-denning seasons,” said Patty Ames, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force president.

The environmental groups are asking the judge for an injunction to stop the trapping season until Montana rewrites its trapping regulations to prevent the capture of grizzlies.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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