BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge issued an injunction Friday allowing wolf trapping and hunting to continue outside Yellowstone National Park, as lawmakers in Helena advanced a measure to loosen restrictions on killing wolves statewide.
Combined, the two actions pave the way for a further ratcheting up of Montana's efforts to curb gray wolf numbers less than two years after they came off the endangered species list.
Friday's decision from state District Judge Brenda Gilbert came after state wildlife commissioners attempted to close two areas totaling 60 square miles to hunting and trapping out of concerns too many Yellowstone wolves were being killed.
Gilbert agreed with sporting groups that sued the state over the matter, resulting in a temporary restraining order earlier this month. Plaintiffs in the case said not enough public notice was given prior to the December approval of the closure by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.
Gilbert said that lack of notice denied hunting proponents a fair chance to weigh in on the closures. She said if the closures had stood, members of the public would have been unfairly denied the ability to hunt and trap wolves and it would have increased the risks of livestock attacks by the animals.
Critics contend the state is being too aggressive against the predators. After rebounding from widespread extermination last century, wolves lost their endangered species protections under orders from Congress in 2011.
Wildlife advocates warn that Montana risks driving away the thousands of tourists who come to Yellowstone annually in hopes of glimpsing a wolf in the wild. Park officials also have sought limits on how the number of wolves killed just across Yellowstone's boundary.
Hunting outfitters and other supporters of Montana's wolf season say driving down wolf numbers is key to reducing the predators' attacks on livestock and big game herds.
So far this season 156 wolves have been killed in Montana, including 52 by trappers. That includes several wolves collared for research by Yellowstone scientists.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said commissioners will take up the Yellowstone-area closure proposal again on Jan. 29. He said appropriate public notice requirements will be followed.
But any effort to reinstitute a closure on wolf killing near Yellowstone could be rendered moot by a measure that gained unanimous approval Friday in the House.
That bill, co-sponsored by Republicans Rep. Kelly Flynn of Townsend and Rep. Ted Washburn of Bozeman, includes a provision to prohibit the state from creating no-hunting buffer zones around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
Commissioners only would be able to close down hunting and trapping in such areas if a wolf harvest quota that had been previously established was met.
The state last year lifted wolf hunting and trapping quotas across most of the state. The hope was to reduce the population to around 450 wolves. That compares to at least 650 wolves in Montana at the beginning of 2012, when the last official count was released.
The House-backed measure also would let hunters and trappers buy multiple tags and use electronic wolf calls, reduce the price of a non-resident tag from $350 to $50 and eliminate the requirement that hunters wear fluorescent orange outside of elk and deer season.
The measure must be voted on again by the House before it goes to the Senate.