Yellowstone-area wolf harvests in court Monday

Billings, Mont. (AP) – Montana officials were due in state court Monday to ask a judge to reinstate a temporary ban against the hunting and trapping of gray wolves near Yellowstone National Park.

At issue are two areas north of Yellowstone near the town of Gardiner totaling about 60 square miles.

Montana wildlife commissioners closed the wolf season in those areas in December over worries that too many wolves that wandered out of the park were being shot by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

That included at least five wolves that had been collared for research by park scientists.

Hunting and trapping supporters sued over the closure of wolf season, saying not enough public input had been allowed. State District Judge Nels Swandal earlier this month issued a restraining order that re-opened the wolf harvest.

Swandal recently retired, and Monday's hearing is before Judge Brenda Gilbert in Livingston.

Wildlife advocates say the case threatens to drive away tourists who come to Yellowstone for the chance to see wolves in the wild.

“We've got people who book repeat trips (to the park) who say if this is allowed to happen they won't be coming back,'' said Brad Orsted, a wildlife guide and photographer from Gardiner.

Wolves in the Northern Rockies came off the endangered species list in 2011 after a decades-long government restoration effort. In a bid to curb the predators' attacks on livestock, Montana is attempting to use hunting and trapping to sharply reduce a statewide wolf population estimated at about 650 animals at the end of 2011.

But state officials draw a distinction between that goal and the closure around Yellowstone.

Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission Chairman Bob Ream said no Montana wolf packs live in the affected area.

“The idea was that if those Yellowstone wolves come out, it is a relatively small area and would have little or no relationship with the Montana harvest,'' Ream said of the hunting and trapping closure.

The plaintiffs in the case are state Rep. Alan Redfield, Citizens for Balanced Use, Big Game Forever and Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Their attorney, Jim Brown, said wildlife officials violated public notice requirements when they closed the Yellowstone-area harvest during a Dec. 10 teleconference. Officials didn't make a formal announcement that closures would be considered at the meeting, although state officials were quoted raising that possibility in a Dec. 9 story by The Associated Press.

Attorneys for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will argue Monday the closure was valid and followed proper procedures.

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