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Plans to sue due to failure to protect grizzlies from trapping

| June 2, 2023 7:00 AM

A citizens’ task force says that it plans on suing both the state and federal government for not protecting grizzly bears because of the state’s zeal to enact expanded trapping and hunting laws without regard to the bears.

The Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen task force has sent the 60-day notice of intent to sue the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks because it says that as the state expanded trapping, snaring and hunting regulations, it failed to take safety precautions that would protect the fragile grizzly bear population, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act, but is being considered for delisting in two areas of Montana.

The 60-day notice is a requirement in order to bring a lawsuit in federal court and puts the agencies on notice so that they may opt to correct or modify plans to avoid a lawsuit.

Neither the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, nor the Montana FWP responded to the Daily Montanan’s requests for comment.

“The (notice) claims the illegal unregulated taking of grizzly bears is occurring as a consequence of Montana’s Wolf and Furbearer Trapping regulations and that this taking may threaten … grizzly bear recovery,” the letter said.

The concern, which was voiced as Montana expanded greater hunting and trapping laws during the 2021 Legislature, is that traps set for other animals, such as wolves, may accidentally ensnare and kill “non-target” species like grizzly bear or Canada lynx.

While such accidental killings are considered illegal under federal law, the “incidental takings” – the term for such a killing – must be addressed in plans, and reasonable rules to mitigate them must be enacted at either the federal or state levels.

“FWS and the State of Montana are in violation of the Endangered Species Act Section 9 by allowing unregulated illegal takings of grizzly bears in Montana as a result of wolf and furbearer trapping seasons administered by (Montana FWP),” the letter said. “No required incidental take statement has been prepared and no required incidental take permit has been issued.”

Because of that, the citizens group said that both have failed to implement a mitigation plan that would offset the hunting impact.

“Under Section 9, it does not matter how many total animals are taken or how many are injured, any unpermitted takings are illegal,” the letter states.

The letter doesn’t just point out the theoretical possibility that grizzlies will be accidentally killed or “taken,” but notes that the state’s own data shows that between 2012 and 2022 six bears were “non-target captures” of traps, including one grizzly caught in a leg-hold trap set for wolves.

The 11-page letter which outlines the group’s concerns also lists examples from other nearby states and Canadian provinces which have reported similar issues with grizzly bears and trapping.

The letter also outlined concerns with Montana’s specific trapping guidelines.

“In Montana, snares for most species are required to break loose with more than 350 pounds of dead pull strength, while for wolves, this requirement is 1,000 pounds,” the letter reads. “However, (a 2022 study) found that on average an adult grizzly bear has about 342 pound of dead pull weight, not enough to break free.”

The group also said other states and Canadian provinces have developed more sophisticated traps to target certain species, but prevent bears. For example, marten traps have elevated boxes that are too narrow for a grizzly foot.

“In Montana, there are no regulations or recommendations specific to preventing bycatch of grizzly bears,” the letter read.

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