HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Environmental groups told a judge Monday that the wolf population in Montana and in Yellowstone National Park would be irreparably harmed if he lifts a temporary restraining order that restricted wolf hunting and trapping following concerns that too many of the animals could be killed this winter.
The court hearing in Helena comes as Montana and other Republican-led states have moved in recent years to make it easier to kill the predators. Montana's loosened 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 in October sued the state over its regulations, which authorize the killing of 456 wolves statewide this winter, including a new quota of just six wolves north of Yellowstone.
Officials from WildEarth Guardians and the Coyote Project, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told District Court Judge Chris Abbott that the state changed the way it estimates its wolf population without taking public comment on the method. The population estimates are used to help set hunting quotas.
The current method overestimates the population, argued Francisco Santiago-Avila, a science and conservation manager with Project Coyote, allowing more wolves to be killed. Increased quotas also leads to more poaching that is not accurately accounted for in wolf deaths each year, he said.
The environmental groups also argue the state hasn't updated its wolf conservation plan to include recent data and scientific studies and did not adequately take into consideration public comment urging decreased wolf hunting.
Sarah Clerget, chief legal counsel for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, suggested that the environmental groups believe the agency didn't listen to public comment because they didn't do what the groups wanted.
The state was due to present its argument on Monday afternoon. Abbott said he didn't expect to make a decision until Tuesday.
As of Monday, Montana hunters had killed 69 wolves since the season opened in September.
A total of 273 wolves were reported killed in Montana last winter, out of an estimated population of about 1,100 wolves.
Abbott on Nov. 16 granted a temporary restraining order limiting wolf hunting to just two animals outside Yellowstone and temporarily reducing the number of wolves a person may kill during the season from 20 to five. He also limited the number that could be killed near Glacier National Park and temporarily banned the use of neck snares during the trapping season that began Monday.
Abbott is considering whether those restrictions should be continued while the case is heard, or whether the wolf-hunting rules the state approved in August should be reinstated.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly last winter asked Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to halt wolf hunting just 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.
Gianforte has criticized the judge, saying Abbott "overstepped his bounds to align with extreme activists" when he granted the restraining order.
Gianforte trapped and killed a radio-collared wolf from Yellowstone last year on private land near the park. He was later given a warning for violating state hunting by failing to take a mandatory trapper education course before killing the wolf.
Wolves were exterminated in most of the U.S. by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns. They were reintroduced from Canada into the northern U.S. Rockies in the 1990s and have rebounded in areas of the Great Lakes.
The mountains and forests of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have become strongholds for wolf populations since reintroduction, which has helped fuel the species' expansion in recent years into parts of Oregon, Washington state and California.
The animals were taken off the federal endangered species list in the region in 2011.
Montana and Idaho loosened their wolf-hunting rules at the urging of hunters and ranchers who wanted fewer wolves roaming.
Advocates last year petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore endangered protections for wolves in the Western U.S. The Biden administration said in a preliminary finding last September that protections for wolves may need to be restored because new laws in Idaho and Montana posed a potential threat to wolves across the region.