by Eve Byron, Independent Record
Wolverine trapping, slated to begin on Saturday, is on hold after a Helena judge on Friday granted nine conservation groups’ request for a temporary restraining order.
In a five-page order, Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said the size of the wolverine population is unclear, with the possibility that only 35 wolverines reside in a three-state area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
“Further, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that wolverines are ‘warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act,'” Sherlock wrote, adding that the federal agency could list wolverines as endangered when it reviews the situation in February 2013.
“Balancing the equities presented by the parties, there appears to be no harm to the Defendants whatsoever if the wolverine season is suspended until the Court can more carefully consider the parties’ arguments,” he added. “… the wolverine trapping season is not designed to prevent wolverine depredation on other species, domestic livestock or humans. Balancing the loss of a ‘recreational harvest opportunity’ against the possible damage to a potentially endangered species, the Court finds the equities lie in favor of issuing a temporary restraining order.”
A follow-up hearing is set for Jan. 10, 2013.
Ken McDonald, wildlife bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena, said Montana’s quota of five wolverines is “based on sound wildlife management science that doesn’t put the state’s wolverine population at risk.”
“Our management is conservative, sustainable and reasonable,” McDonald said.
He noted that in 2010, USFWS determined that threats to the wolverine included climate change but declined to list it as an endangered or threatened species due to higher priorities.
Once prolific across the West, wolverines now number 250 to 300 in the northern Rocky Mountains, the USFWS estimates. FWP officials believe the wolverine population is stable or expanding, but the environmental groups fear that global climate change is imperiling their habitat and will prompt the population to drop.
McDonald said FWP will immediately examine the restraining order and consider legal options, but for now trappers are prohibited from pursuing wolverines in Montana.
Montana is the only state that allows wolverine trapping.
The groups that sued for the restraining order include Helena Hunters and Anglers, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, the Montana Ecosystem Defense Council, the Native Ecosystems Council, George Wuerthner, the Swan View Coalition, Wildearth Guardians and Footloose Montana. They heralded the judge’s decision to halt the trapping, even if it’s only a temporary order.
“Authorizing trapping wolverines under these circumstances is making a bad situation worse,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the Alliance. “Wolverines need all the help they can get right now and Montana shouldn’t be kicking them when they’re down.”
The Alliance petitioned FWP to halt trapping in August to no avail. They filed the lawsuit in state district court in October, arguing that continued trapping violates state laws requiring maintenance or restoration of rare animals.
The groups note that wolverines require deep, late-spring snowpack for denning and raising young and cold year-round temperatures. They believe that as suitable habitat is fragmented or vanishes, populations become ever more isolated and reproduction becomes much more difficult.
They fear that a substantial number of the remaining wolverines in Montana are unsuccessful breeders or nonbreeding sub-adults, which means Montana’s “effective population” of wolverines able to breed is perhaps fewer than 50.
“Wolverines are facing enormous threats from climate change and habitat loss, trapping should not be one of them,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan. “We are pleased that Judge Sherlock granted the restraining order so that he can fully evaluate this important issue.”