Environmental groups renew lawsuit over wolf delisting

Jun 12, 2009

Environmental groups renew

On June 2, the Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Justice, and several other conservation groups filed to have gray wolves in Idaho and Montana relisted for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. This comes in the wake of the May 4 federal decision to remove protection for wolves in those two states. The groups contend that wolf populations are not yet high enough to support genetic diversity, and they fear that the state’s plans to introduce hunting seasons would decimate the wolf population.

"We look forward to one day seeing the wolves fully recovered and under state management," said Defenders of Wildlife Representative Suzanne Stone in their June 2 press release. "But both the delisting plan and the state plans currently in place are not adequate to ensure the long term recovery of wolves."

But that opinion is not shared by officials at the state or federal levels.

"There’s absolutely no question this population is fully recovered," Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), told the Associated Press. "We have wolves moving everywhere. Right now, just a rough guess, there’s probably a couple of thousand wolves in the northern Rockies."

Despite the conservation group’s allegations to the contrary, Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the Idaho Fish and Game Department, is also confident in his state’s ability to manage its wolf population. He says that although Idaho is planning to initiate a hunting season, he does not think that wolves are going to be eradicated due to hunting. The season, which would take place in the fall, would be governed by a strict quota and, as Unsworth points out, actually hunting down and killing a wolf in the backcountry of Idaho may not be an easy task.

"They’ll be tougher to get than most people think," says Unsworth. He also notes that hunting wolves will grow more challenging as years pass and the wolves develop a greater fear of humans. Although Defenders of Wildlife allege that Montana and Idaho intend to reduce their total wolf population to 300 wolves between the two states, that is merely the lowest number allowed by USFWS. Neither Idaho nor Montana is yet prepared to say how many wolves it will take to fill those hunting quotas, but a press release from the Department of the Interior indicates that Idaho and Montana are expected to manage their populations with target numbers of 500 and 400 wolves, respectively.

The wolves were first delisted in the spring of 2008, but litigation at that time resulted in a federal judge placing the animals back on endangered status in July of last year, largely due to the belief that state management plans were inadequate. They were slated to be delisted again in January, but that process was put on hold, pending further review, as the Obama administration took office. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in April that the administration would uphold USFWS’s decision to remove the wolves from endangered status in Montana, Idaho, and parts of Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Wolves in Wyoming remain under federal protection as Wyoming’s wolf management plan was deemed insufficient protection for the predator.

The Wyoming management plan classifies wolves as predators in much of the state, allowing them to be removed on sight. Although approval of this plan was initially granted by USFWS, their endorsement was rescinded after the 2008 court decision in Montana. Bangs stated at that time that USFWS had no choice but to withdraw support in light of the judge’s decision, which was based heavily on criticisms of Wyoming’s management plan. However, officials in Wyoming contend that there was no scientific basis to support that decision, and they have also filed suit. That suit, which was filed in the district court at Cheyenne, seeks a court order to force the federal government to turn wolf management over to the state. Barring that, the lawsuit requests a court order directing the Fish and Wildlife service to manage the wolves so that the population does not exceed 15 breeding pairs, the number earlier determined by USFWS to be Wyoming’s share of a healthy wolf population.

At this time the cases do not have a set court date, but neither case comes as a surprise to USFWS, which expects that litigation will continue to come in from both sides of the issue. As Bangs pointed out, lawsuits in this arena are nothing new. "We’ve been in constant litigation since 1994," he says. Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent

lawsuit over wolf delisting