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One day before the season was to start, a state district court judge has halted Montana’s wolverine trapping while he prepares to hear arguments why the animal should be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Helena-based Western Environmental Law Center led a slate of eight environmentalist and conservation groups in suing the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks over the trapping season. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock issued a temporary restraining order blocking the season Friday and will hear oral arguments Jan. 10.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed wolverines on its “warranted but precluded” list of candidate species for ESA protection in 2010. That meant it had reason to believe wolverines were at risk of extinction in the continental United States but lacked the money or resources to complete its research. The agency estimates between 250 and 300 wolverines live south of the Canadian border. About 150 of them are in Montana.

“We petitioned back in August to stop the trapping, and the department refused, so we sued in state court,” said Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the plaintiffs. “If they were actually listed, the state would be prohibited from having a trapping season anyway.”

FWP allowed five wolverines to be trapped per season. The 2012 season was scheduled to open Saturday.

“Our management is conservative, sustainable and reasonable,” FWP state wildlife manager Ken McDonald said in an email. He argued the agency’s research showed Montana’s wolverine population could absorb the loss of five animals a year.

But Garrity said during a recent wolverine tracking study in the Pioneer Mountains, six of the 14 collared animals were killed in traps over three years. That included four adult males of breeding age and two pregnant females.

Sherlock said the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming likely only had 35 wolverine females of breeding age.

“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,” Sherlock wrote. “In an affidavit presented by George Pauley, (FWP) wildlife management section supervisor, it appears that the wolverine trapping season presents only ‘recreational harvest opportunities.’ In other words, 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.”

Wolverines use deep snowpacks to den and give birth to young during the winter. Shrinking winter snowpacks over recent years are believed to have a serious impact on wolverine breeding success.

The rest of the plaintiffs in the case were Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystem Defense Council, Native Ecosystems Council, Swan View Coalition, WildEarth Guardians and Footloose Montana.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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